The nerves were showing on opening night, but once the cast bedded in this was a rather beguiling performance during which some promising talent showed through. Not wavering much from the look and feel of the established Broadway production, Spring Awakening tells the tale of naïve young Wendla (Elena Stephenson), whose mother refuses to tell the “blossoming” girl the facts of life, and her friend, the infinitely more worldly-wise Melchior (David Schute).
Famously based on an 1891 German work once banned on stage (as Wikipedia puts it, due to its portrayal of “masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide”. Mein Gott, is that all?!), the story explores all the longings and troubles of teenage life way before James Dean came along, playing out at its most OTT more like a Lutheran-style Rocky Horror journey of sexual discovery set to an over-earnest, deceptively simple-sounding alt-rock score.
The leading couple worked well together, as their innocent friendship became more. Stephenson, as Elena, was beautifully understated, and as they sang “Oh, I’m gonna be wounded/ Oh, you’re gonna be my wound”, it was hard not to be drawn in to that pending sense of doom.
But it’s Jason Guest’s supporting performance as luckless Moritz that the audience takes away with them. Perhaps better known as part of provocative Vogue dance troupe House of Suarez, seeing him vulnerable, and with such a good voice too, was at first quite a step. In the second half, he really nailed the desperation of his character’s fate. Jack Malone put in a strong and comic performance as camp as Christmas Hanschen, playing to the gallery with confidence the others seemed to lack.
But where some parts of the story are genuinely engrossing, others are just disturbing. The portrayal of teenage lust in all its forms is as oddly refreshing as it is evocative, but in the end the comparison of the boys’ relatively harmless pursuit of their desires, compared with the horrible price the women have to pay, seemingly without a moment’s physical enjoyment in their generally wretched lives, is just too depressing. And when all the melodrama is done, the final, rousing ensemble number, The Song of Purple Summer, is achingly meaningless, with no reference to be found to any theme of purple, or summer, or anything as much throughout the entire show.
So, What We Did Next worked with what they could. If you’re a Unity regular, it’s almost worth going to see for the thrill of the set, complete with band to the right of the stage – so unusual for the venue. Of course you’re not getting Broadway standard, of course mics will buzz now and then, and when someone goes in for the slap (and there’s a fair bit of that), the puny noise that can be heard as they try not to really hit each other doesn’t really help build the tension. The stage was too small for some of the direction required, and the dancing wasn’t the best you’ll ever see. But in the end, the ensemble told the story well enough to bring a lump to the throat when it mattered, and presented something the audience had probably never quite seen on that stage before.
Spring Awakening runs at the Unity Theatre until Saturday (February 5).