Boundary Pushing Start for New Irish Musical Theatre Group

Grace Nolan, Lisa Lyons, Hannah Franchetti and Hannah McNicholas Roche in Entr’acte’s production of ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Earl Echivarre).

Boundary Pushing Start for New Irish Musical Theatre Group

Newly established musical theatre group Entr’acte performed the coming-of-age show 'Spring Awakening' at Smock Alley Theatre on 25–28 January. Thomas Neill reviews.

Before doors opened, one thought immediately sprang to mind – what better venue than Ireland’s oldest theatre to house this punishingly defiant, alt-rock scored fever-dream that is Spring Awakening? The new musical theatre group Entr’acte, established in early 2021, describe themselves as ‘young Irish creatives’ whose purpose is the advancement of theatrical practice for young and emerging talent in Ireland. Specifically, they exist to ‘bridge the gap’ between youth and established theatre – an ambitious yet admirable cause.  

Based on the heavily censored 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, this boundary pushing musical adaption took Broadway by storm when it opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in 2006, starring Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff. With music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, Spring Awakening follows a group of young teens – tucked up in some provincial German village in the late 1800s – whose burgeoning sexual adolescence is quashed and stifled by the religious and social conservatism of adult authority. The consequences range from bittersweet to bloody.

Inseparable from pain
Sex. Sin. Suicide. These themes constitute the meat and bones of this story, and producer Kate Canavan and director Niamh McGowan embrace it wholeheartedly. Notably, McGowan weaves her own underlining into the story – ‘I was inspired by Adam & Eve… each character giving into the temptation of their vices’. This motif is reflected in the set design by KathyAnn Murphy, which is minimalistic and creatively bricolage at times. Adorning the space from upstage is an apple tree and the stain-glass window of a church, both invaded with crawling vines that are later used to physically bind the performers. In this story, temptation gives way to a pleasure that is tragically inseparable from pain.  

Generally, this production effectively utilises Smock Alley’s main space, with a twenty-one strong cast playing to three sides. Combined with the band on a narrow upstage apron, it is a tight squeeze – difficulty with balancing levels means we lose a few quippy solos in the mix. Choreography by Leah Meagher is refreshingly intimate. Each performer conveys an equal sense of awe and bewilderment towards their own body – in the opening number ‘Mama Who Bore Me’, the latter is particularly evident, as the young girls bemoan their lack of sexual and reproductive knowledge. It isn’t until ‘Touch Me’ that their groping and grasping becomes stroking and caressing, in which both the boys and girls imagine their bodies in tandem with one another. Their internal exploration becomes increasingly external, until they can no longer control it, thrashing and flailing in such numbers as ‘The Bitch of Living’ and ‘Totally Fucked’.  

Love-struck characters
There are several standout performances. Hannah McNicholas Roche (Wendla) and Ruairí Nicholl (Melchior) are inseparable, not merely as their love-struck characters, but as musical counterparts. ‘The World of Your Body’ – marking their descent into carnal intimacy – is particularly lush. Surprisingly, it isn’t their harmonic accuracy which stands out the most, but rather their gently blended and silvery unison passages. Nicholl shows off a sweet and well-projected upper range, and Roche too is capable of much vocal depth. In ‘Whispering’, we are totally transfixed, as Roche chooses a new audience member to connect with on each line. Encircling the pair, the chorus perform their incantation of ‘I Believe’ – by Act 2 the deed is done, apple cores now strewn in the hayloft-turned-bedchamber. 

Cian Gallagher (Moritz) is especially strong, playing the tormented teen with vitality yet vulnerability. Unlike Melchior, he is ‘haunted’ by his erotic impulses – failing his exams, we watch as his father strikes him, over and over. After the defeating ‘Don’t Do Sadness’ he stands alone – clutching a noose – cast beneath the shadow of the apple tree, now backlit in red. Lisa Lyons (Martha) and Caoimhe Tyndall (Ilse) are worthy of much praise for their renditions of ‘The Dark I Know Well’ and ‘Blue Wind’ respectively. They bear the weight of patriarchal violence, yet sing to differing effects – one a seething rebuke, the other a dissociative lament. Ultimately, it is Wendla who is punished for their collective sins; a botched abortion, her epitaph cites ‘anemia’.  

Dramatic action
It is encouraging to see a band of this size in an amateur production, with seven primary instrumentalists including Róisín Heenan as musical director. Additionally, no less than seven cast-instrumentalists break ranks to meld the ‘pit’ with dramatic action downstage. This is in keeping with McGowan’s ‘muso-actor’ vision. Seemingly influenced by the Irish wake tradition, the band sing prayerfully along, simply when it feels right. There are occasional issues with ensemble (pick-ups and vamp transitions) but these musicians are professionals, and a few reassuring nods from Heenan sets them back on track. 

This dynamic production undoubtedly signifies a fresh start for Entr’acte as a forefront performing company for young arts professionals in Ireland. The dedication to bettering such a cause is a crucial step in ensuring the continuation of an art form that has often struggled to gain solid footing within the Irish arts scene. There’s no predicting what Entr’acte will do next, but if Spring Awakening has taught us anything at all, it’s that ‘the weirdest shit is still to come’. 

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Published on 1 February 2023

Thomas Neill is a freelance educator, performer, and writer on music. His focus includes choral leadership, singing facilitation, and music within opera and theatre.

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