Angsty and Fierce: A Neptune Theatre School Spring Awakening

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james maclean & julia topple

photo by ingrid bulmer

For a city with tragically few opportunities for performers who live here to be cast in professional (and professional quality) musical theatre Halifax sure is filled with more than its share of talented young musical theatre performers. Between its Youth Performance Company, its Pre-Professional Training Program and its newer Musical Theatre Foundation Program, Neptune Theatre is giving a solid basis of training for all of these rising stars- the question for me when I see a production as strong as the PPTP/MTFP production of Spring Awakening, playing at the Neptune Studio Theatre through May 18th, is who will give steady employment in Musical Theatre to these students once they graduate and are we doomed to continue to export our most talented performers to flood the over-crowded musical theatre market in cities like Toronto and Manhattan? It is also utterly absurd to me that of all the theatres doing musicals in the country, the most difficult theatre to break into for a former student of Neptune Theatre School is very likely going to be Neptune Theatre itself. Shouldn’t Neptune be focused primarily on training its own artists of tomorrow? Surely that was at least part of the original intention in the creation of the Theatre School in 1983.

Just as significant is that this rendition of Spring Awakening, despite being a student production, features the most innovative, focused, poetic and graceful staging and choreography (by Halifax’s own David Overton and Véronique MacKenzie respectively) that I have seen in a musical on a Neptune stage in years. Overton and MacKenzie’s expertise here really gives these young performers a strong foundation on which to build their characters and to tell this poignant, angry, desperate story of teenage loneliness, confusion and how so many young people come to have such a low opinion of themselves, their capabilities and the world that seems so often to ensnare rather than to liberate or provide for them.

Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Expressionist play of the same name, Spring Awakening is a coming of age story set in Germany at the end of the 19th Century where fourteen year olds are confronting puberty in all the same ways that teenagers grapple with these profound changes in their lives and their bodies today. The perfection of Spring Awakening is the colliding of Wedekind’s story from the past with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s contemporary pop rock score, which captures the universality of these themes and these characters. The production is enhanced by having a band onstage instead of backing tracks, although the sound balance is not alway ideal, as the band sometimes overpowers the performers’ voices.

At the heart of this production are Julia Topple’s sweet and innocent Wendla, James MacLean’s young socialist revolutionary Melchior and Adam Smith’s tormented and overwhelmed Moritz. Their deep friendship and need for one another is immediately apparent and the ways in which they are continually thwarted by the adults in their lives never seems cliched or overdramatic— only tragically inevitable. Scott Bailey, Brandon Lorimer and Danielle Doiron provide some spirited comedic moments and the entire company comes together beautifully in the show’s rich harmonies and ensemble numbers.

In the same way that Spring Awakening is a rallying cry from the young to the old, demanding to be seen, to be heard and to be taken seriously and pushing the complex issues that are so often relegated to whispers right onto centre stage we can also see the young performers of Halifax doing the same. For Moritz his situation is desperate: it is a matter of life or death- and for these musical theatre actors the myriad of issues surrounding the future of theatre in Halifax is just as immediate, frustrating and urgent. I hope that the 2014 graduates of Neptune Theatre School’s Pre-Professional Training Program and Musical Theatre Foundation Program won’t find themselves proverbially “Totally Fucked” as soon as they exit the stage after the final curtain call.

Spring Awakening plays May 16th and 17th at 7:30 p.m and May 18 at 2pm and 7:30 p.m. at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre. Tickets, start at $15.00 are available at the boxoffice (1593 Argyle Street), by phone at 902. 429-7070or online at www.neptunetheatre.com.  

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