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Review Round-up: Lyric Hammersmith Springs a Hit

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It may seem an unlikely statement in light of the recent weather but spring finally arrived in London this week!

Spring Awakening
, which caused a sensation on Broadway and cleaned up at the 2007 Tony awards, made its much-anticipated transatlantic transfer, opening at the Lyric Hammersmith on Tuesday (3 February, previews from 23 January), where it runs until 28 February 2009.

The alt-rock musical, which has music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name about sexual discovery. Set in 19th-century Germany, the story centres on brilliant student Melchior, his troubled friend Moritz and Wendla, a beautiful girl on the verge of womanhood. It's directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Bill T Jones.

The cast is led by Charlotte Wakefield (Wendla), Iwan Rheon (Moritz) and Aneurin Barnard (Melchior) - the latter two recent graduates of LAMDA and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama respectively – who all make their professional London stage debuts in the production.

Critical reaction was somewhat polarised between those who hailed the “best new musical in London for ages” and those (most notably Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard) who were underwhelmed.  The primary complaints of the dissenters included the “unlovely” lyrics of Steven Sater and its conversion of Wedekind's "savage" play into a piece of “feelgood theatre". However, with three of our included critics awarding five stars and heralding the show "an absolute must-see", it seems to be one worth judging for yourself. And special mention must go to the young cast, who even de Jongh labelled "brilliantly promising".

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “That mood of saying the unsayable or forbidden is brilliantly captured in this superb indie-rock musical adaptation of Wedekind’s play in which the pounding emotional protest numbers and the tender lyrical songs express the interior lives of the adolescents … A year-long audition process has yielded a really wonderful young cast of British talent led by two Welsh boys – Aneurin Barnard as Melchior and Iwan Rheon as Moritz – who frankly knock any TV talent show contestants and winners of recent times into a total cocked hat … In succession to Hair and Rent, this is the third great Broadway rock musical and the most cunningly conceived of them all … the show’s an absolute must-see and by far the best new musical in London for ages.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “Frank Wedekind's 1891 play about adolescent sex was long considered brutally shocking: so much so that it had to wait 15 years for its German premiere and 74 years for a British professional production. Now it comes to us in the form of an award-winning New York show … which charms and beguiles but also smooths over the rough edges of Wedekind's abrasive, expressionist masterpiece … In Wedekind's play, the young are helpless in the face of adult barbarism: here they are empowered by music – which is good in principle, but kills the tragedy. The show is very well staged by Michael Mayer and beautifully performed by its predominantly young British cast … There is much in the show to enjoy and it doesn't shrink from the original's scenes of teenage masochism and communal ejaculation. But, through the soft blandishments of its score, it turns a harsh and savage play into a piece of feelgood theatre.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) - “ I was let down and left there by this multi-award winning Broadway show. Inspired by Frank Wedekind’s seminal sex classic of the 1890s, it condemns a society where sexual education is off every syllabus … Duncan Sheik’s American indie and pop rock music, most of it pleasant but quite unmemorable, exudes a sophistication and assurance that runs counter to the mood of these uptight, ignorant teenagers, with their prim Victorian costumes and grotesque styles … It is equally unfortunate that Michael Mayer’s production, adorned with blue neon lights and an ugly brickwalled set, leans towards caricature … Steven Sater’s unlovely lyrics, on the rare occcasions when the singers can be heard above the eloquent seven-strong band … succeed in making absurd rather than sad the sexual growing pains of the show’s key figures … These brilliantly promising young actors deserve better.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) - “Here it is at last, the answer to one's prayers - a new musical, bursting with ambition and achievement, that doesn't owe its existence to a back-catalogue of pop hits or an old movie. Spring Awakening, with the best original pop/rock score since Hair more than 40 years ago, bowled me over in New York in 2006 and cleaned up at the Tony Awards. Seeing it again I am more convinced than ever that this is a landmark show which, with a fair wind and a speedy move into the West End, will once again persuade young writers, and more importantly producers, that there is still a place for daring and originality in musical theatre … Michael Mayer directs a superbly compelling production … It's a blast to see this show whatever age you happen to be. But to see it as a teenager must be very heaven.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “There's surely no doubting the audience that Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik were targeting when they adapted Frank Wedekind's play of 1891 for New York. On opening night in Britain their counterparts - young to a man, woman, boy or girl - gave a standing ovation to a musical that, thanks to the bookings engendered by internet chat rooms, had already had its run extended. And why not? The show gives tongue to adolescent pain, paranoia, self-pity and sexual confusion … It gives a bit less tongue to Wedekind … Still, the plot that Germany, Britain, everywhere once found so shocking stays intact … Yet the show's big trick, which is to dress the kids as 1891 German teenagers but give them modern pop-rock songs, gives Michael Mayer's fine, spare production its memorable moments.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (five stars) - “Something extraordinary has happened with this London production of a Broadway rock-pop musical based on a 19th century German play: it’s an advance hit based on word-of-blog among young people, who have heard it’s a kind of High School Musical with angst ... It ticks enough boxes for excellence – acting, design, choreography, theatrical innovation, emotional power, even the lighting – to be a must-see not just for hormonal adolescents, but for anyone who has ever been one … The songs themselves are the weak point. Some of the lyrics are banal, and those not entwined with action slow the proceedings down … Nevertheless, this show is like nothing else on the musical stage at the moment. It deserves a longer life than its short run at the Lyric.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

  • DON'T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Spring Awakening on 9 February, including a FREE programme and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show reception with the company - all for £27! Click here for details.


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