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LACKING IN PLAYFULNESS AND DANGER WITH SOME EXCEPTIONS

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Auckland Fringe 2013
SPRING AWAKENING The Musical
Based on the Frank Wedekind play
score by Duncan Sheik
book and lyrics Steven Sater
direction by Richard Neame
musical direction by Chris Moore
choreography by Teesh Szabo
presented by Auckland Music Theatre

at Westpoint Performing Arts Centre, Auckland
From 23 Feb 2013 to 9 Mar 2013
[2 hrs]

Reviewed by Glen Pickering, 25 Feb 2013


I preface my review with this: Should Auckland Music Theatre have produced Spring Awakening? Absolutely! It is a brilliant musical. Should it be part of the Auckland Fringe Festival? No.

‘Fringe theatre' can be difficult to define, but to me Spring Awakening is not a Fringe show. It is a heavily work-shopped, multiple Tony Award-winning, Broadway musical.

If you do an established piece, you need to make bold choices and take bigger risks to make it a Fringe show. AMT's production stays true to original productions in costume, set and style, and whilst, to some, the content may not be traditional, it remains true to musical theatre conventions.

The only way this would be considered Fringe theatre is if AMT were to break out of the original and traditional realms and do something completely new with it. A different location, perhaps, or focusing on different performance styles? This is the necessary treatment for Spring Awakening to earn its place as Fringe theatre.

AMT's Spring Awakening is enjoyable though. It is set beneath an oak tree which stands tall and proud upstage centre. The show opens with a half dressed girl aloft a chair, caressing her body. She asks God to help her control these strange new desires and feelings. Her mother enters, tells her to get dressed and informs her she is “in bloom”. She has entered a new chapter of life.

Based on the well-known Frank Wedekind play (1891), Spring Awakening follows 10 teenagers entering this new chapter as they explore sexuality, discover friendship, revolt against family, endure violence, deal with death and realise the confusing messiness that is being a teenager. We travel with them in and out of their school, personal, private and public lives. Still set in the late 19th Century, it reassures us that teenagers have always and will always face the same wonders and problems through the ages.  

AMT's production stays very true to previous overseas productions, where the use of extra set pieces and props is sparse, with only the bare essentials being used. Richard Neame's direction works best when he does the same and trusts simplicity. ‘The Word Of Your Body' and ‘Whispering' standout for exactly this. Overall Neame has directed a solid and visually enjoyable production.

Teesh Szabo's choreography is strong and engaging. It is particularly effective in the numbers ‘Touch Me' and ‘Totally Fucked'. The cast have varying dance abilities and on opening night there was tendency to over-energise the movement, which unfortunately muddied some of Szabo's fine choreography.

Chris Moore's 10 piece band work Duncan Sheik's beautifully haunting and menacing score masterfully, with the strings in particular extracting the subtle complexity that lie beneath the rock. Unfortunately the sound design is not consistent, with the balance and mixing needing attention. Likewise Andrew Potvin's lighting design is inconsistent, changing styles throughout seemingly without reason.

The cast is made up of 10 young performers and 2 ‘Adult' performers who play all the varying adult characters.  

There is a generally tendency to overact, affect and push too hard, leading to a lack of subtly and nuance in the performances. What is most absent is a true sense of playfulness and danger which this piece really requires. I'm sure the playfulness will come once the cast relax into the season and start exploring, however the danger can only come from the performers playing less of the ‘musical theatre style' and finding more truthful, connected, honest performances.

There are a few exceptions. Heather Wilcock's Wendla is the standout. Her voice is something special. She has an incredible ability to tell story, convey emotion and truly connect to a song, the highlight of the night being her enchanting and haunting ‘Whispering'.

Clayton Curnow has a beautiful voice and he creates an equally beautiful, open-souled Ernst who is innocent and charming. Brie Hill's Isla is raw and vulnerable and Ian Fenwick, playing all the ‘Adult Male' characters, transitions wonderfully from task master teacher to stoic father. Fenwick also gets the most clever and heartbreaking of Szabo's movement during the funeral scene. The truth that Fenwick displays in this moment is exactly what the other performances require. It is simple, honest and rips through you.

If you are musical theatre fan, go. You will not be disappointed finally seeing this piece being staged for the first time in New Zealand. It is an enjoyable production with some beautiful music and moments. If you enjoy more the risk and reward of Fringe theatre then another show might be a better choice. 
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See also reviews by:
 James Wenley (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);

Comments

Simon Taylor posted 25 Feb 2013, 07:02 PM
 

This is a mean and badly written review. Whether the show belongs to the Fringe or fringe-as-genre deserves no more than a passing comment, considering that this is an NZ premiere. The reviewer should make a study of "subtly" [sic].

Matt Baker posted 26 Feb 2013, 08:38 AM
 

Hi Simon, I was wondering if you could specify what about this review is mean or badly written? I'm not challenging you; I'm simply curious and would like more specificity. I see a lot of adjectives used frivolously in comments on reviews, and based on other posts of yours I've read I believe you have the ability to explain in greater detail.

Also, the Fringe or fringe-as-genre comments seem, to me, to be the reviewer's way of giving context to the production, as it is noted at the beginning and end of the review. I also note that it was similarly mentioned in the Theatre Scenes review, so it would appear it is a noteworthy comment. Thanks!

Simon Taylor posted 26 Feb 2013, 10:27 AM
 

Matt,

will expand on 'badly written' when I get a chance. I am thinking of the framing of the review with excuses for it when I say mean. ('I will preface this with...' and 'If you want the challenge and risk of Fringe don't go' sort of thing.) I mean, mean-spiritied. Ungenerous. John doesn't frame his recent review of Thin Skin similarly, simply 'picks up his side of the bargain' for the professed reason that it is a Fringe show. I don't know with whom or what he made this bargain. Matt, you give Spring Awakening a passably good review and that's nice. But it's not nice to pit it against your idea of what a Fringe show ought to be. It skews the review. It gets in the eye of the public and it does the production no favours.

Matt Baker posted 26 Feb 2013, 10:48 AM / edited 26 Feb 2013, 10:49 AM
 

Hi Simon, Interesting. I didn't interpret ‘I preface my review…' and ‘ If you want a challenge…' as mean-spirited at all. Again, simply placing the show within the context of the Fringe. Many members of the public have a predisposition towards the types of shows they see, and these comments would inform said readers dutifully.

It was actually James who reviewed Spring Awakening for Theatre Scenes. To cut and paste from my post on that thread following a similar discussion:

“The term was coined by Robert Kemp when describing unofficial companies performing on the ‘fringe' of the Edinburgh International Festival. The term is equivalent to the Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway theatres of New York, so, technically, considering that Spring Awakening was a Broadway production, to comment on it's inclusion as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival is quite an apt remark.”

Do you not agree, then, considering the coining of the term, that these fringe related remarks are relevant?

Simon Taylor posted 26 Feb 2013, 03:24 PM
 

of course. However, it would have been more generous, considering the forces brought together to mount the show, to begin: NZ PREMIERE! or am I wrong, is this not the New Zealand Premiere? This information, if true, is simply more important. It merits being writ large. And the show merits it being writ large. 

Fringe - how stingy ...

 

And if this is NZ's first look ... the provenance of Spring Awakening, the musical, is more interesting, more important, and more valuable, than that of Fringe.

Simon Taylor posted 26 Feb 2013, 03:37 PM
 

one more small thing... clearly of little importance... considering it hasn't so far been mentioned in connection with this Fringe, as far as I have seen, which, granted, has neither been very far nor very deep: does THIS Fringe HERE NOW really qualify as a Fringe at all? Isn't it simply trading off the brand, Fringe? Who is choosing these productions for inclusion? And if there were to be any argument as to whether Spring Awakening belonged in the Fringe, surely it would centre on that choice, that decision, rather than worry at the merits or demeritis of the production? these are fringe issues ... then one could look at the Festival programme over all and wonder ... why?

Simon Taylor posted 27 Feb 2013, 12:25 AM / edited 28 Feb 2013, 09:25 AM
 

I preface my review with this: Should Auckland Music Theatre have produced Spring Awakening? Absolutely! It is a brilliant musical. Should it be part of the Auckland Fringe Festival? No.

‘Fringe theatre' can be difficult to define, but to me Spring Awakening is not a Fringe show. It is a heavily work-shopped, multiple Tony Award-winning, Broadway musical.

... true but not important.

If you do an established piece, you need to make bold choices and take bigger risks to make it a Fringe show.

If 'I' do? If 'you' do? How did 'you' suddenly come into it? I thought it was an Auckland Music Theatre production.

AMT's production stays true to original productions in costume, set and style, and whilst, ...

Whilst? Do you say 'whilst'? And perhaps give a little whistle?

to some, the content may not be traditional, it remains true to musical theatre conventions.

conventions not unlike conventions which are not unlike conventions that make or make not a Fringe show.

The only way this would be considered Fringe theatre is if AMT were to break out of the original and traditional realms and do something completely new with it.

Ah... Ahhhh ... Chooo! excuse me.

A different location, perhaps, or focusing on different performance styles?

What a funny little nebbish-like reading.

This is the necessary treatment for Spring Awakening to earn its place as Fringe theatre.

Tiresome.

AMT's Spring Awakening is enjoyable though.

Now after justice has been done and been seen to be done commences the review:

It is set beneath an oak tree which stands tall and proud upstage centre. The show opens with a half dressed girl aloft a chair, caressing her body. She asks God to help her control these strange new desires and feelings. Her mother enters, tells her to get dressed and informs her she is “in bloom”. She has entered a new chapter of life.

I hope the show sets the scene more effectively.

Based on the well-known Frank Wedekind play (1891)...

Tell me, how many productions? How well-known?

...Spring Awakening follows 10 teenagers entering this new chapter...

not novel...

...as they explore sexuality, discover friendship, revolt against family, endure violence, deal with death and realise the confusing messiness that is being a teenager.

realise it as if it were already written? manifest it? channel? whose?

We travel with them in and out of their school, personal, private and public lives. Still set in the late 19th Century...

Still set? A Fringe show would not be so still set!

...it reassures us that teenagers have always and will always face the same wonders and problems through the ages.  

I agree, not Fringe at all. Adolescence is so... MOR.

AMT's production stays very true to previous overseas productions, where the use of extra set pieces and props is sparse, with only the bare essentials being used.

meaning?

Richard Neame's direction works best when he does the same and trusts simplicity.

meaning?

‘The Word Of Your Body' and ‘Whispering' standout for exactly this.

meaning?

Overall Neame has directed a solid and visually enjoyable production.

Thank Neame!

Teesh Szabo's choreography is strong and engaging. It is particularly effective in the numbers ‘Touch Me' and ‘Totally Fucked'.

Totally Fucked sounds promisingly Fringe, avant la lettre.

The cast have varying dance abilities and on opening night there was tendency to over-energise the movement, which unfortunately muddied some of Szabo's fine choreography.

How could you tell?

Chris Moore's 10 piece band work Duncan Sheik's beautifully haunting and menacing score masterfully, with the strings in particular extracting the subtle complexity that lie beneath the rock.

10 piece?!!! what other company is offering live accompaniment to this order of magnitude, i.e. 10?

Unfortunately the sound design is not consistent, with the balance and mixing needing attention. Likewise Andrew Potvin's lighting design is inconsistent, changing styles throughout seemingly without reason.

Without reason? or seemingly so?

The cast is made up of 10 young performers and 2 ‘Adult' performers who play all the varying adult characters.  

There is a generally tendency to overact, affect and push too hard, leading to a lack of subtly...

No.

...and nuance in the performances. What is most absent is a true sense of playfulness and danger which this piece really requires. I'm sure the playfulness will come once the cast relax into the season and start exploring, however the danger can only come from the performers playing less of the ‘musical theatre style' and finding more truthful, connected, honest performances.

How often have you done this show? And now it all gets so much better...

There are a few exceptions. Heather Wilcock's Wendla is the standout. Her voice is something special. She has an incredible ability to tell story, convey emotion and truly connect to a song, the highlight of the night being her enchanting and haunting ‘Whispering'.

Clayton Curnow has a beautiful voice and he creates an equally beautiful, open-souled Ernst who is innocent and charming. Brie Hill's Isla is raw and vulnerable and Ian Fenwick, playing all the ‘Adult Male' characters, transitions wonderfully from task master teacher to stoic father. Fenwick also gets the most clever and heartbreaking of Szabo's movement during the funeral scene. The truth that Fenwick displays in this moment is exactly what the other performances require. It is simple, honest and rips through you.

If you are musical theatre fan, go. You will not be disappointed finally seeing this piece being staged for the first time in New Zealand.

... a ridiculous back-hander: finally... for the first time...

It is an enjoyable production with some beautiful music and moments. If you enjoy more the risk and reward of Fringe theatre then another show might be a better choice.  

... the risk and the reward... the risk and the reward... What in fact are you advocating for?

More risk and reward than an NZ premiere, 10 piece band and 12 players committed to a cool show? I don't get it.

Please flatter reviewer with recognisably Fringe production, central to Fringe and not fringe Fringe, which is just not Fringe...

Matt Baker posted 27 Feb 2013, 08:38 AM
 

Hi Simon, my apologies, I seem to have incorrectly interpreted what you meant as badly written as reference to syntax and overall structure from a literary point of view.

Statements such as “... true but not important”, “Whilst? Do you say 'whilst'? And perhaps give a little whistle?”, “Ah... Ahhhh ... Chooo! excuse me”, “What a funny little nebbish-like reading”, “Tiresome” are nothing more than obscure ad hominem opinions in regards to the content of the writing, which have no justified foothold in the discipline of literary or theatrical criticism.

While you have every right not to like said content for your own personal reasons, to launch into an attack on a reviewer for such a reason is quite inappropriate and, dare I say, mean-spirited.

So, once again, my apologies, as it seems your time was spent quite needlessly.

The show is advertised on the Auckland Fringe Festival website. I think you should stop flogging a dead horse in this regard and take umbrage with the festival organisers, as opposed to the reviewers who are just doing their job.

Alan Smithee posted 2 Mar 2013, 06:06 PM
 

Wow Simon was invited to give a detailed account of his problems with the review. He does so very well and gets attacked for it? This gang of reviewers are making themselves look like arrogant, pompous toffs.

I saw the show and it is brilliant! The two negative reviews on here smack of personal vendetta and perhaps jealousy? Also i couldn't care less what festival it's in, or however you want to pigeon hole it. I watched it as a piece of Amateur theatre with no pre conceptions.

Matt, you were intellectually shown up. But that's okay. It is okay to admit you're wrong and occasionally other people make fair points. These are traits which, if you had been paying attention were displayed in the show. 

Go on... suggest i should expand on what 'exactly' i mean. That seems about the depth of your rhetoric.

Matt Baker posted 2 Mar 2013, 06:42 PM
 

Hi Alan (nice pseudonym by the way),

I think this is one of those situations where we simply have a different take on what is considered a detailed account. If you honestly believe that Simon's responses have any weight to them, that's fine. Personally, I don't believe they have any bearing in a literary or critical sense. Imagine having a conversation with someone who responded to the things you said with such words. Would you honestly consider that to be an engaging or constructive conversation? Really?

So you thought the show was brilliant, did you? Good for you. How do the two ‘negative' reviews smack of personal vendetta or jealously? Can you quote me an example of how you came to this conclusion? Or are these simply aspersions? Couldn't care less about what festival it's in? Fine, but other readers might. Are you so arrogant that a reviewer must cater to your personal wants in a review?

It seems you feel that my asking people to expand on their ideas is the ‘depth of my rhetoric'. Actually, it's my way of attempting to understand them as accurately as possible, so that I might learn something from them. In the case of Simon, I didn't, because his ‘detailed account' as you wish to put it, was, quite simply, pathetic.

John Smythe posted 2 Mar 2013, 10:55 PM
 

My one experience of the New York Fringe revealed quite a lot of shows are tryouts of new works and showcases hoping to pick up mainstream seasons. Fair enough. And of course very alternative theatre shows that have no aspiration at all to go mainstream. I doubt there would ever be a Tony Award winner in the mix though. But then the New York scene support a huge range of professional productions with large casts - and that's very different from here. 

Simon Taylor posted 3 Mar 2013, 11:38 AM / edited 3 Mar 2013, 03:57 PM
 

I would like to speak, briefly, to the case of Simon [Matt] and his problems with the review [Alan]. The review's problem and Simon's case is that it is trying Spring Awakening in the wrong court. (A court it is now odd to see John entering and odder still to watch him, mistaking tennis for another sport, pick up the dropped ball and start running.) Not only this, the review's vagueness in detail (e.g. "seemingly"), errors in grammar (e.g. "subtly") and flaws in style - a rhetorical virus seemingly subtly contracted by reviewers endemic to this site - (e.g. "whilst) together led me to describe the review as badly written. I have no personal reasons [Matt] apart from caring about the quality of shows and crits to say mean and bad about the review (mean things to say [Matt]); and, since the pathetic [Matt] and my own case are in contention, I would like to add that I am not identifying the reviewer with the review, describing her, him, which would be ad hominem [Matt], or it as mean or badly written, perhaps just badly read.