SPRING AWAKENING – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – the musical heartbreaker is back…and it may just be better than ever

Photo by Alessio Bolzoni


Book and lyrics by Steven Sater

Music by Duncan Sheik

Based upon the play by Frank Wedekind

Directed by Rupert Goold

Almeida Theatre – until 22 January 2022


I’m not sure even the greatest admirers of this 2006 Broadway smash will be prepared for the emotional and visceral impact of this jaw-droppingly fine new production by the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold and his team of visionary theatrical magicians. To have this playing on the London stage at the same time as Rebecca Frecknall’s astonishing new take on Cabaret is truly wonderful.

The only chastening thing is trying to work out how many times one can conceivably get to Islington before this (far too) short season ends in late January. A West End transfer is far from a given, especially in these Covid times, and also considering how the 2009 London production fared: a replica of Michael Mayer’s stunning Broadway original, it got raves and sold out performances at the Lyric Hammersmith before dying a brutally swift death upon its transfer to the West End’s Novello, possibly not helped by an advertising campaign featuring the young cast (which included future stars such as Aneurin Barnard, Iwan Rheon, Natasha J Barnes and Evelyn Hoskins) that looked more like it was for a vintage clothes outlet (a period Gap perhaps?) than one of the most extraordinary new musicals of its generations.

Anyway, here it is again, in an enthralling, bewitching new staging and with a terrific young cast, that is every bit the equal of its predecessor. One way that this version differs from the original is in tone. It’s slightly less fever-pitched, more contemplative and less aggressive….and the glorious songs (Sater and Sheik’s gorgeous rocky, folk-inflected creations collectively remain as haunting and rousing as ever) now spring directly from the script and characters whereas previously they ran almost antagonistically against them, like a contemporary commentary on the story.

There’s even a new number (actually one cut from the original workshop version), ‘There Once Was A Pirate’ which serves as a sort of reverie and a glimpse of children at play, a heartcatching reminder of just how young these characters are supposed to be. It’s staged with a bravura simplicity -the kids creating a ship out of thin air, aided by Finn Ross’s video design, which is breathtaking throughout. The vocal arrangements and orchestrations (Sheik and the always brilliant Simon Hale) have more light and shade than I remembered, only unleashing full rock fury for the now-legendary ‘Totally Fucked’ number, the staging of which is possibly the most thrilling thing in any current London musical, which is quite a statement when one considers the last twenty minutes of Back To The Future, the transformations in Frozen, that Moulin Rouge is in preview, or indeed Cabaret in its entirety: yep, it’s THAT good.

Lynne Page has repeatedly proved herself one of this country’s most versatile and inventive choreographers – American Psycho here at the Almeida then on Broadway, the Menier’s La Cage Aux Folles and Funny Girl, the Pet Shop Boys tour – but her work here is outstanding even by her acclaimed standards. The dances are earthy, organic, angular yet fluid, athletic, character-driven…. and they exhilaratingly negotiate the treacherous looking flight of steps that constitutes Miriam Buether’s striking set.

The overall look of the production (Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes, Jack Knowles’s lighting, both spot-on, plus Ross’s endlessly fascinating projections) is a tantalising mixture of timeless, period specific and jaggedly modern, an ingenious visual shorthand for marrying Wedekind’s angst-ridden expressionist text to the sometimes intolerable pressures that contemporary teenagers face. None of this is oversold though, and the cumulative effect of the tragic narrative overlaid with a creepingly unsettling sense of present day unease proves revelatory.

There isn’t a weak link in the cast, every one of whom, from Nathan Armakwei-Laryea’s swaggering bad boy to Bella Maclean’s luminous victim of abuse, has a specificity, commitment and power that fair knocks the wind out of the onlooker. The scene between the deeply unhappy, painfully sensitive Moritz (Stuart Thompson in a mesmerising star-making performance) and free-spirited outcast Ilse (Carly-Sophia Davies, perfection) where she sort-of comes on to him as he’s lost in a fog of despair has a searing intensity I’ve never seen before. Catherine Cusack and Mark Lockyer do magnificent work as all the adult characters, heightened, removed and slightly grotesque, as grownups often seem to troubled teens.

As the nominal leads, young lovers Wendla and Melchior, Amara Okereke and Laurie Kynaston continue on the upward career trajectories that this sensational pair of young stars so richly deserve. Okereke is the stronger singer -her voice is basically astonishing, combining sweetness and power with a virtuoso versatility- but both invest their characters with an inner life, sharp intelligence and sheer relatability that forces us to pay attention and to care. They are stunningly good.

I’m basically running out of superlatives here. This is the kind of spine-tingling production that forcibly reminds you of the transformative possibilities of theatre, and the uplift and heartbreak that truly great musicals can achieve. It thrills the blood and breaks the heart. Please go and see it…if you can get in.


One response to “SPRING AWAKENING – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – the musical heartbreaker is back…and it may just be better than ever”

  1. This review has left me with goosebumps on my arms. Thank you Alun Hood for sharing your experience so brilliantly.


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