Broadway Review: Deaf West’s ‘Spring Awakening’

28 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Spring Awakening’ review: Deaf West winning Broadway revival is going to wound you.

The nonprofit Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, which brought Broadway the triumphant Big River in 2003, has done it again with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s rock musical – making inclusionary, astonishingly alive work. One of the great musicals of the last decade was born anew on Sunday, when the thrillingly inventive Deaf West Theater production of “Spring Awakening” opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.

In Deaf West’s exhilarating reboot of the moody and stirring 2007 Tony winner by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the repressed and rudderless kids are lifting more than their voices. With “Spring Awakening,” which marks the North Hollywood-based theater company’s second major Broadway transfer (following 2003’s “Big River”), the company goes as far as to incorporate the deaf dimension into the plot of the hit musical, transforming a show about the explosive consequences of denying sex ed to a conservative late-19th-century German community into a critique of deaf education policy at the same time. Any qualms theater-lovers might have about this being a premature, whiplash-inducing revival — the original closed in 2009, after all — will vanish like frost in strong sunlight when the young cast of both hearing and deaf actors floods the stage. It’s the opening song, “Mama Who Bore Me,” that the ensemble of deaf and hearing actors is performing and the sign for heaven that the group is evoking, for the lyric “No sleep in heaven, or Bethlehem.” The unison execution underlines the teenagers’ solidarity in this rock-musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 cautionary play, about the ignorance in which fearful parents sometimes keep their children, in ways that can lead to tragedy. Michael Arden’s production for the Deaf West company skillfully integrates American Sign Language with Spencer Liff’s choreography, so the doubling of actors doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling.

And indeed, the narrative achieves through signing an added measure of poignancy, especially in the musical’s tender ballads of sexual discovery, such as “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body.” This moving Broadway revival, then, seals a pact with an audience in a gentler manner than the more scaldingly assertive original production, which won eight Tony Awards, including best musical. The method works intuitively enough, considering that much of Steven Sater’s book and lyrics — adapted from German writer Frank Wedekind’s controversial and oft-censored 1891 play — were projections of the teen characters’ interior angst to begin with. Signing is a natural for this story based on Frank Wedekind’s bold 1890 drama about sex and teens whose concerns fall on the deaf ears of parents and professors.

Deaf actors communicate to the hearing audience by relying on colleagues elsewhere onstage to provide their spoken dialogue and singing voice, like alter egos. So, for example, the young female protagonist, Wendla Bergmann, is played by the deaf Sandra Mae Frank, who uses sign language to deliver her lines; her singing and spoken dialogue comes from Katie Boeck, who shadows her onstage, often strumming a guitar. They’re softer interpretations of the roles pioneered respectively by Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr. (Lea Michele was the original Wendla, Melchior’s love interest.) And with supporting actors such as Camryn Manheim and Patrick Page delivering more vocally assaultive turns this time as the oppressive adults in the story, the musical’s dynamic has shifted: the teens in director Michael Arden’s revival seem less defiant than embattled.

It works better than you might expect — and it’s a treat to see Camryn Manheim juggle a couple of supporting parts and give voice to Marlee Matlin, sadly underused in her Broadway debut. Even within the familiar format, Mayer gives things a whole new focus by making nearly half of the show’s adolescent ensemble deaf, their characters directly impacted by the consequences of 1880’s Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf.

Michael Arden, known as an actor from Deaf West’s “Big River” in 2003 and more recently “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” announces himself as a director in a big way. That “Spring Awakening” adapts so easily to this new context is a testament to the suppleness of Sheik and Sater’s work (although not that much time has elapsed since the piece was first unveiled by off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company in the summer of 2006). The result is an exhilarating and fluid hybrid of song, word, dance and sign — and a sheer triumph for director Michael Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff. That symposium, disproportionately stacked to favor champions of the oralist teaching method, passed a series of resolutions attempting to ban sign language from schools, insisting that students instead practice lip-reading and speech. The kids are meant to be a hot mess of confusion and frustrated horniness, but here they’re so wholesome, you can almost picture them polishing their application to Juilliard, or whatever they call acting school in Germany.

In fact, the additional theatrical elements introduced by Deaf West–best known up to now for its revival of the Huck Finn musical “Big River” more than a decade ago–are so well-knitted into the evening that the mix of signing and singing feels completely in keeping with the show’s spirit. Suicidal young Moritz Stiefel is failed at school not out of simple caprice, but rather in a genuine bias against deaf pupils, given stern voice by Patrick Page and severe countenance by Russell Harvard (recently seen as a deaf hit man in TV’s “Fargo”). Wendla happily gives herself to Melchior, then registers mild surprise at learning she’s pregnant — the mama who bore her didn’t tell her about the birds and the bees.

The story conjoins 19th and 21st Century attitudes and forms, in service of revealing that unbending rules, especially regarding sex, pose wrenching dilemmas for young people in any era. There are also wonderful featured performances by Krysta Rodriguez, who was in the 2006 original, and Ali Stroker, the first actor who uses a wheelchair to make it to Broadway. Likewise, in sexual encounters that now feel less like outright violations, Wendla and Ernst (Joshua Castille) are deaf students whose desires are now being heard for the first time by their respective partners, the progressive Melchior Gabor (Austin P. Ben Stanton’s achingly gloomy lighting that includes silhouettes, long beams and shadows, and Dane Laffrey’s scaffolding-and-ladders scenic design both work well.

Whereas the school was merely repressive with regard to its pupils’ sexual desires in earlier versions, now this institution is a deservedly detestable example of the sort of prejudicial selection practices that turned fatal several decades later in Germany. Meanwhile, the musical’s focus on means of communication–through the clever ways it mixes signing, surtitles and spoken dialogue–reinforces a theme of the evening, concerning what can go wrong in the absence of communication, particularly between parent and child. With its brazen treatment of such then-shocking subjects as puberty, pregnancy and abortion, paired with the almost fetishistic regard in which it holds its short-pants-clad ensemble, “Spring Awakening” has always stood in complicated defiance of both Teutonic severity and the lofty Aryan ideal. Marlee Matlin (an Oscar winner for “Children of a Lesser God”) has the rather minor role here of Melchior’s mother, so her presence is not felt strongly enough.

Hanschen remains the show’s Hitler-youthiest character, an oily, Draco Malfoy-esque manipulator (who gets a clever sign-language assist during his masturbation scene), while the cast makes room for deaf, African-American actress Treshelle Edmond (sung by Kathryn Gallagher) and wheelchair-bound vocal powerhouse Ali Stroker (“Glee”). “Spring Awakening” puts such inclusivity to thematic use while keeping the show’s rock-music energy high. A mild case of sensory overload may have you reeling in the opening minutes, as you adjust to the necessity of taking it all in, and figuring out where to focus your concentration at any given moment. And though one misses in McKenzie’s choir-boy countenance some of the irascible self-possession of Groff’s performance, the show’s depiction of teenagers with a need to unyoke themselves from adult control remains vibrantly intact. With classrooms in turmoil and evil teachers being monstrous, it sometimes feels like “Spring Awakening” is what the poor kids from “Matilda” can look forward to in a few years.

For most of the show, the band remains integrated into the shadows of Dane Laffrey’s industrial-looking set, whose steel walls and rolling stairs look more like a 20th-century power station than a German boys’ school. But when necessary, the musicians aren’t afraid to run out into the audience, who won’t soon forget the sight of Matlin rocking an electric guitar in the boxed seats. And it doesn’t take much time before you move beyond the mechanics and fall into the dark flow of Wedekind’s tale of sexual exploration, and the conflict between youthful rebellion and a repressive social order.

Sets, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Laffrey; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Gareth Owen; orchestrations, Sheik; music supervision, Jared Stein; vocal designer, Annmarie Milazzo; string orchestrations, Simon Hale; production stage manager, T.J. Manheim excels in particular as the flustered mother of Wendla, who in the play’s opening scene evades her adolescent daughter’s innocent question about where babies come from, telling her only that for a woman to bear a child she “must … in her own personal way, she must … love her husband.

As only she can love him.” This less than illuminating explanation sets in motion the tragedy that unfolds — or rather one of them. “Spring Awakening” does not present a comforting portrait of the transition from adolescence to adulthood; two of its three central characters don’t survive. Camryn Manheim, Marlee Matlin, Patrick Page, Russell Harvard, Robert Ariza, Miles Barbee, Katie Boeck, Alex Boniello, Joshua Castille, Lizzy Cuesta, Daniel N. Frank, both through the urgent movements of her signing and her expressive face, in which we can read the bright hunger for experience — and the embarrassment of ignorance.

Durant exudes a boyish sense of melodramatic frustration; his brutish father will not countenance anything less than accomplishment, and Moritz’s struggles at school are met with a lack of sympathy that shrivels his vulnerable soul. Arden’s production, with its stark set and spiffy (mostly) period costumes, both by Dane Laffrey, doesn’t depart radically from the original, directed by Michael Mayer.

It’s an interesting point of connection, and one might also imagine that deaf actors (and viewers) could identify intuitively with the principal characters’ disorienting sense of alienation from the dominant culture. But I hesitate to impose any new meanings on a work that doesn’t need them to move us, or to imply that this “Spring Awakening” would only appeal to those with a particular interest in making more cultural space for people with disabilities. (Incidentally, the cast also includes an actor in a wheelchair — a detail I so easily assimilated that I almost forgot to mention it.) Deaf actors may not have the same tools that most actors do, but the gifted men and women in this splendid production achieve the same ideal ends, lighting up the lives of their characters from within, even when the light only reveals the darkness of their confusion, frustration and despair.

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