Tom Noyes as Melchior Gabor and Niven Willett as Moritz Stiefel - Photo: Claire Bilyard (Scarab Pictures)
Since reviewing an amateur production of Spring Awakening back in February I was keen to compare it with the creativity and performance values of a different society. A second opinion, if you like. The reason being, in February I really struggled to understand why the performing world was going so crazy for this ‘critically acclaimed’ musical.
It’s a real head-scratcher – although not at all unique – when a new show sweeps the boards at the usual award ceremonies (including the Olivier for Best New Musical) but then struggles to pull in the punters. A respectable two-year Broadway run wasn’t matched in the West End with Spring Awakening lasting a paltry four months before taking an Autum Sleep.
This week professionally-run Renegade Theatre Company, in only its third amateur production (following Zombie Prom and Lucky Stiff), takes on Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s rock musical. Renegade now runs and resides in Buckinghamshire's Duke Street Theatre; a newly converted warehouse which provides all manner of creative possibilities and, even more importantly, provides the young people of High Wycombe with an environment to rehearse and perform with amateur status but in a highly professional setting – a bit like being at drama school, only without the restrictive price-tag.
Produced by Renegade Theatre’s Chloé James and employing the services of a professional creative team – led by director, Alex Howarth – Spring Awakening’s seventeen-strong cast is almost completely drawn from Renegade’s young membership, with just a couple of drafted-in professionals to tackle more mature roles.
Howarth has utilised his Mountview training to produce a remarkable showcase-style staging of the show, where the whole cast is used as an ensemble throughout, even acting as props and furniture. With the versatile performance space in a constant dimly lit haze and designed in-the-round, the audience is within touching distance of the intimate and eerie 6m x 6m stage area. Entrances at all four corners allow performers to slip in and out of the action through the audience without ever truly exiting – gantry and rostra, barely visible through the murky fog, providing suitable resting places and changing areas until the time comes to once more emerge from the gloom.
While I think I’ll always struggle with Spring Awakening’s depressing storyline of sexual discovery and tragedy within a group of 19th Century German students, I absolutely love the music and atmosphere created by M.D. Jerome Van Den Berghe. Not a million miles away from the style created by Once the Musical the six-strong band, mixed with the talents of various actor-musicians within the cast, produce a gorgeous acoustic sound that completely complements the show’s design (and especially Anna Saunders' costume design). It was also nice to see every cast member equipped with a head-mic despite being directly under the noses of the audience, allowing performers to lower their projection at the show's more emotional moments.
As mentioned, Howarth has produced a fine ensemble performance from a very competent cast which, through Matthew Marrs’ inventive choreography, are collectively captivating and professional throughout. Faultless vocals (including some wonderfully performed harmonies), disciplined and energy-filled choreography, plus an equally fine dramatic delivery. Why weren’t companies like this around when I was a teenager? As tempting as it is, with several performers having more of a ‘leading’ role than others, I’m going resist singling out any individuals. Otherwise I’d feel awful about leaving anyone out. I’m very happy to keep this one in the showcase category and if I was an agent I’d sign them all up tomorrow.
(L-R) Nicole Lily Baisden, Amelia Wall, Alex Brain as Wendla Bergman, and Dominique Hamilton - Photo: Claire Bilyard (Scarab Pictures)