Musical theatre can be a scary concept for some – perhaps something to do with outdated images of overly cheerful characters who sing about trivial things like kittens and mittens. Now may be the time to put those preconceptions aside, because the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) is currently staging a production of the hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening.
Based on the Frank Wedekind play of the same name, Spring Awakening is a rock musical set in the late 19th century. This adaptation premiered on Broadway in 2006 and in 2007 it scooped 11 nominations and eight wins at the Tony Awards.
The plot centres around a group of teenagers attempting to discover their sexual identities – they are oppressed by adults who are conservative to the point of damaging their children emotionally and sometimes physically.
The show is not all doom and gloom, though. There are many upbeat, rebellious numbers, for example, “Bitch of Living” and “Totally F**ked”. Since it’s a rock musical, a lot of the songs are guitar-based, which for some may make the idea of a musical more appealing. And despite tragedy along the way, the show ultimately ends with a message of hope.
This is the first time that this particular version of Spring Awakening is being performed in South Africa. It is directed by Dr Harold Mortimer, choreographed by Weslee Swain Lauder and produced by Josef du Preez. Main characters Wendla and Melchior are played by Ashleigh Butcher and Richard Gau respectively.
Zolani Shangase steals the show with his astounding performance as Melchior’s best friend, Moritz. His rendition of “Don’t Do Sadness” is tortured and riveting, and is without a doubt one of the highlights of this production.
Gau’s performance is not far behind. His portrayal of Melchior is mature and engaging. He manages to hit some impressive high notes throughout the show – especially near the end of the emotional “Those You’ve Known”.
Butcher as Wendla is slightly overshadowed by the two male leads but still holds her own. She portrays innocence well, and her beautiful but haunted delivery of “Whispering” is particularly memorable. One should also keep in mind that Lea Michele of Glee fame originated this role on Broadway – a tough act to follow in the eyes of those who are familiar with the original cast recording of the show.
Another stand-out performance is Fulu Mugovani as Martha. Though this is not a lead role, her vocal talent and acting abilities do not go unnoticed. Look out for “The Dark I Know Well” – Martha’s story of the sexual abuse her father inflicts on her. The pain in Mugovani’s eyes is chilling. This number is also memorable because of TUT’s unique interpretation of the original song.
The choreography also deserves a mention: throughout the show it is original and modern, adding to the emotional tension of each number without ever distracting from it.
Another interesting aspect of this production is Dr Mortimer’s decision to do away with the American accents traditionally used in this show and instead allow the actors to speak and sing in their natural South African accents. Some indigenous South African languages are also scattered throughout TUT’s interpretation of the script. Die-hard Spring Awakening fans might be bothered by this deviation from the original songs, but without that reference, it goes virtually unnoticed.
All in all, the show is definitely worth a watch. You’ll leave the theatre deep in thought – and perhaps feeling more optimistic about musical theatre as a whole. Spring Awakening is currently showing at the Breytenbach Theatre until Saturday 20 August. Tickets are R35 for students and can be booked either by calling (012) 440 4834 or emailing email@example.com.