Monday, October 05, 2015

"Spring Awakening" Blooms Again On Broadway In A Groundbreaking New Production with Deaf West Theatre

"Spring Awakening"
Photo by Kevin Parry
Through January 24, 2016
When the word spread that "Spring Awakening" would be returning to Broadway in a re-imagined production helmed by Deaf West Theatre, there were many questions among the theater crowd.  Was it too soon to bring back a hit show that seemed to have closed only a few years ago? Would the addition of deaf actors to a musical be seen as a distraction - or as a gimmick?  They need not have worried, for this new iteration of "Spring Awakening" is a thrilling and fully engaging show from beginning to end.

The pre-opening controversy put me in mind of some of the chatter that accompanied the 40th anniversary production of "Pippin" under Diane Paulus.  Would the addition of circus acrobats be just another clever casting coup to garner publicity, or would it enhance the telling of the story? The success of that show demonstrated that a discerning Broadway audience is ready to embrace creative ways of telling compelling stories.

So, let's examine how the addition of American Sign Language in the hands of deaf actors works in telling the story of 19th century German adolescents who struggle to understand their emerging sexual drives in a society that still wants them to embrace the myth of the stork bringing babies.

  • The first thing I would say is that watching the actors - both those who speak and those who do not speak - augmenting the telling of the story with ASL added a layer of visual poetry that is riveting and glorious.  At one point early in the show, the actors on stage all expressed their feelings by signing the word for "heaven."  The resulting visual image looked like and felt like an explosion of fingertip fireworks.
  • The addition of the dynamic of deaf and hearing actors learning to overcome barriers to communication underscores one of the main themes of this musical: adults who refuse to communicate honestly and fluidly with the next generation about issues of sexuality - throwing up needless barriers to communication.
  • In any culture, adolescents whose libidos are awakening go through an awkward phase of learning to express those longings to one another in appropriate ways.  The cast members of this production described a similar initial awkwardness as hearing actors learned to express themselves haltingly and awkwardly in ASL.
  • The play that inspired this musical was banned in Germany because of its explicit sexual content. During a similar time in history, the use of ASL was banned at an international conference on deafness because the organizers preferred that deaf people should learn to lip read.
  • The use of the hands to tell the story adds a new layer of poignancy to the oft-repeated lyric: "Haven't you heard the word of your body?"
  • In a day when there is growing demand for inclusive casting, the blending of voiced and deaf actors along with Ali Stroker performing as the first wheelchair-bound actor in Broadway history raises the bar on inclusiveness in casting.

How does Director Michael Aden carry out the daunting task of telling this story with such a mixed cast?  There are eight actors who are deaf, eight who speak and sing and seven musicians - all sharing the stage with one another.

The role of Wendla is played by Sandra Mae Frank, and her voice is spoken and sung by Katie Boeck, who also plays guitar and piano.  In the same way, Moritz is acted by Daniel N. Durant and his voice is Alex Boniello, who also plays guitar.There are times when the use of two actors allows the audience to hear voiced the inner thoughts of the character. This dynamic is particularly poignant when Moritz is contemplating suicide, and the voice of Moritz hands a gun to the deaf Moritz. The role of Melchior is handled by a single actor - Austin P. McKenzie.

Austin P. McKenzie as Melchior
Sandra Mae Frank as Wendla
"Spring Awakening"
Photo by Kevin Parry
Through January 24, 2016

Some familiar names and faces populate this gifted troupe.  Marlee Matlin has long been a champion for the deaf community, and she plays the roles of Frau Gabor, Frau Bessell and Frau Schmidt.  Camryn Manheim is an imposing figure as Frau Bergmann, Fraulein Knuppeldick, and the ample-bosomed piano teacher who is the object of much fantasizing on the part of her randy pupil.  Andy Mientus, star of Smash, plays Hanschen looking every bit the poster boy for blond Aryan purity.  Russell Harvard adds the stentorian tones of his voice to the role of the Headmaster and the roles of Herr Stiefel and Father Kaulbach.

The gifted cast handle the lyrics of Steven Sater and the music of Duncan Sheik with great gusto and aplomb and the edginess we have come to expect from this show. They occupy every inch of the multi-level set designed by Dane Laffrey, who also designed the costumes. The complex choreography by Spencer Liff enhances the blending of the two groups of actors and the musicians in creative ways.  Lighting by Ben Stanton and Sound by Gareth Owen create just the right chiaroscuro blend of light and darkness that befits the themes of this story.

This musical is a cornucopia of delights for the eye and for the ear as well as for the soul. There are many highlights, but I will close with the final scenario as the cast exits the stage singing "The Song of Purple Summer." A story that contains many individual tragedies gives way to an idyllic day in the future when young people can escape the tyranny of narrow-minded authority figures, leave them behind and live a life of beauty and freedom. The young cast members exit upstage through a door that leads to a bright forest - a dream of Elysian fields and the hope of the summer solstice.

"Spring Awakening" is scheduled for a limited run through January 24, 2016.  Tickets are going fast.  Do not delay. This one is special.



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