Review: Spring Awakening (Toronto Youth Theatre)

Toronto Youth Theatre presents the edgy musical Spring Awakening through November 26, 2011.

I’ve been a fan of Spring Awakening since 2007 when I took a chance on lining up for a rush ticket to a Broadway show I knew virtually nothing about. I ended up loving the edgy rock musical with music by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, based on a play written in 1891 by German playwright Frank Wedekind.

Mirvish brought the North American tour to Toronto for a run at the Canon Theatre in 2009 and now we’re starting to see the first of the local productions, including one by the Lower Ossington Theatre, that I reviewed back in September.

Wedekind’s play is about the sexual awakening of a group of teens in a prudish, provincial German town in the 1800s. The controversial work portrays rape, child abuse, teen pregnancy, homosexuality and teen suicide and has been frequently banned throughout its history. Sheik and Sater’s musical adaptation retains most of the controversial elements while layering a catchy, rock-infused score overtop.

It’s not exactly the kind of subject matter you’d expect a youth theatre production to tackle. But then, Toronto Youth Theatre, a not-for-profit with the goal of developing emergent theatre talent, is not your typical youth theatre. They’re apparently not afraid to take on edgy, adult material that isn’t often performed by youth.

The show Spring Awakening is a great fit for this company. I love the fact that this production is able to feature young actors, 14 to 19 years old, who are the same age as the characters. The young cast brings a rawness and authenticity to the work that older, more-trained actors sometimes lack. Though the cast may be young, I was amazed at the level of talent they already possess.

The entire ensemble is consistently strong but a few actors really stood out for me. (It should be noted that the lead roles in the show are double-cast so different actors rotate according to a schedule posted on the show’s website.)

I enjoyed Noah Freedman’s portrayal of Melchior, his voice has a great intensity that conveys the character’s passion. The scene in the hayloft where his character has sex for the first time with the naïve Wendla (Sophie Dushko) is incredibly well-played by both leads. They bring an authenticity to the characters’ interactions and do an excellent job conveying their confusion and complex mix of emotions.

Cameron Fox-Revette’s Moritz is a well-balance mix of awkward, confused and insecure. He avoids the trap of making the character too spastic. His duet, Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind, with Ilse (Rebecca Codas) as his character contemplates suicide is especially powerful.

Michaela Milgrom gives a stunning performance as Martha. She has a bold, soulful voice and is really able to channel the character’s pain.

Director Neil Silcox’s choice to stage the sexual and physical abuse Martha describes in the song The Dark I Know Well – when other productions I’ve seen merely hinted at it through the lyrics and choreography – is really effective. The scene is powerful and chilling.

I thought the music sounded great, I really appreciate the fact that the production features the full arrangement of the score, credit to Musical Director Tara Litvack. The show also features some great choral work; the ensemble’s Totally Fucked feels like a true anthem of teen angst and the finale choral number, The Song of Purple Summer, is fantastically bold and uplifting.

The Toronto Youth Theatre’s production is exuberant, honest and ultimately, timely. Spring Awakening is essentially a cautionary tale but it seems some parents and school administrators are still woefully inept at dealing with issues.

The serious issues of bullying and teen suicide have recently come to a head and we’re still struggling to find ways to deal with them. Meanwhile, Catholic school boards are still banning Gay-Straight Alliance clubs and refusing to teach sexual health.

Fortunately, some organizations are willing to take a more progressive approach. Toronto’s St. Andrew’s College is also mounting a production of Spring Awakening this month and using it as an opportunity to start a dialogue with students. The “parent letter” featured on the school’s website should be a model for all educators!

I applaud organizations like Toronto Youth Theatre and St. Andrew’s College for daring to stage Spring Awakening and using it as a tool for education. While the play is tragic the musical ends on a hopeful note. Likewise the fact that these organizations are starting to engage youth in discussion about the broader issues in the show gives us all reason to be hopeful.

Details:

– Spring Awakening is playing at the Lower Ossington Theatre (The LOT) (100A Ossington Avenue) until November 26, 2011
– Shows run Wednesday to Sunday at 7:30PM and Saturday at 2:00PM
– Tickets $17.50 to $35.00
– Tickets are available by phone 416-915-6747 or visit TorontoYouthTheatre.org

Photo Credit: 

Noah Freedman and Sophie Dushenko, photo by Stephen Freedman

 

 

 

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