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When composer Duncan Sheik and playwright Steven Sater adapted Frank Wedekind‘s provocative 1891 drama Spring Awakening into an alt-rock musical, they tapped directly into the heady rush of adolescence, with its surge of unfamiliar desires, its innate rebellions and its destabilizing anxieties. The show’s setting, mired in the stifling repression of provincial, late-19th-century Germany, gave the frustration and confusion of its young characters raw urgency. So it makes sense as a vehicle to be reconceived by the adventurous Los Angeles-based company Deaf West Theatre, with extensive use of American Sign Language adding another layer to the struggle of teenagers unable to verbalize their inner turmoil.
It’s an admirable undertaking and I wish I could get behind it. But arriving on Broadway so soon after Michael Mayer‘s viscerally impactful premiere production won the 2007 Tony Award for best musical, this underpowered, unexceptionally sung post-Glee version seems more of a special presentation than a wholesale reinvention. That impression is furthered by a superfluous preshow during which the cast wander about the stage in their period underwear, tuning guitars and limbering up as they slip into their costumes.
Given that many young audiences will be experiencing the show for the first time, and may well respond to this staging, it’s perhaps unfair to start by comparing it with the original. But there’s a reason Mayer’s production was such a star maker, accelerating the careers of Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr., Skylar Astin and Gideon Glick. It harnessed a level of energy and talent that proves difficult to match. However, it’s not so much the cast as the concept that only half works here.
Deaf West previously came to Broadway in 2003 with the troupe’s exhilarating revival of the Huckleberry Finn musical Big River, which used gesture to enrich the experience of that quintessential piece of American storytelling. Mixing deaf and hearing actors, and ASL with spoken dialogue and song, the production created a bewitching synchronicity between its speaking and signing castmembers, with two interpreters filling many of the same key roles. Narrator and character were fused in a unique way that was both literary and alive, and it felt oddly true to the spirit of Mark Twain‘s novel.
Michael Arden, who played Tom Sawyer in that production, sticks to the same approach in his direction of Spring Awakening. But despite the tragedies that befall the show’s young characters, much of their journey is painfully internalized, so translating their alienation and isolation into gesture makes it emphatically literal rather than expressive. Acting students often get rapped on the knuckles for over-indicating, and while the deaf actors here can’t be faulted along those lines, the effect is the same. It also draws attention to the more on-the-nose dialogue and lyrics in Sater’s script, which can veer toward the florid. Not for nothing does this musical close with a number called “The Song of Purple Summer.”
There’s beauty in the descriptive power of ASL translations for words like “heaven,” “shadow,” “summer” or “wind,” and delicacy in the way the visual language conveys such things as tactile sensation or heartbeats. But more often, sad to say, it proves a distraction here, and the double casting dilutes the characters’ emotional intensity, creating a disconnect.
That’s especially the case with Moritz, the troubled student terrified of shaming his strict banker father by failing at school and not being promoted to the upper grade, while simultaneously too gripped by terrifying discoveries of sexual desire to focus. Gallagher was a heart-wrenching exposed nerve at the center of the original production; splitting the role between Daniel N. Durant and Alex Boniello bifurcates one of the play’s most moving characters to the point where you’re often busy searching through Arden’s busy blocking to see where the words are coming from.
The approach works better with the similarly ill-fated Wendla, largely because Arden positions the two actresses, Sandra Mae Frank and Katie Boeck, closer together and often has them interact, forging a more persuasive symbiosis.
The most consistent performances, however, come from the two significant characters played only by speaking actors: Austin P. McKenzie as radical heartthrob Melchior, and Andy Mientus as sexually fluid power player Hanschen, a Hitler Youth precursor who describes himself as a pussycat skimming off the cream. But even if few of the performers are given the space to register strongly, the entire ensemble is committed to Wedekind’s depiction of youth bucking against a suffocating world that views them as raw material to be forcibly molded into an obedient, productive society.
The adult roles in the musical have always flirted with caricature, and this production is no exception, particularly Camryn Manheim as Wendla’s mother and various school disciplinarians. Marlee Matlin is somewhat underused, appearing mainly as Melchior’s compassionate, relatively liberal mother. But all four senior performers — a group that also includes the sonorous-voiced Patrick Page and the excellent deaf actor Russell Harvard, so affecting in Tribes — bring authority, welcome notes of caustic humor and a fully formed stage presence that’s missing in much of the younger cast. One of the more trenchant scenes is a heated father-son exchange played out in silence (with supertitles) between Harvard and Durant.
Spencer Liff‘s choreography echoes some of the convulsive quality of Bill T. Jones‘ work on Mayer’s production, incorporating ASL into his moves in evocative ways. Sheik’s orchestrations mix pretty strings with heavy percussion, but the sound is noticeably thinner than in the previous incarnation, leaving agit-anthems like “The Bitch of Living,” “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Totally F—ed” on the anemic side. Aside from a final scenic coup, designer Dane Laffrey‘s set is a nondescript gray atrium with multilevel alcoves for the musicians and performers, splashed with unimaginative projections. But the production does boast darkly textured lighting by Ben Stanton that suggests dreams, death and illuminating shafts of liberation that pierce the gloom.
Response to this revival will likely be polarizing, and there’s good reason to assume that its emphatic aspects might speak directly to audiences close in age range to the characters being portrayed. Also, being the rare musical rendered entirely accessible to deaf theatergoers gives it considerable value. But while the intent merits applause, the execution is not sufficiently fresh or Broadway-caliber to justify the swift return.
Cast: Austin P. McKenzie, Sandra Mae Frank, Katie Boeck, Daniel N. Durant, Alex Boniello, Camryn Manheim, Patrick Page, Russell Harvard, Marlee Matlin, Miles Barbee, Joshua Castille, Treshelle Edmond, Kathryn Gallagher, Sean Grandillo, Amelia Hensley, Lauren Luiz, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, Daniel David Stewart, Ali Stroker, Alexander Winter, Alex Wyse
Director: Michael Arden
Book and lyrics: Steven Sater, based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Music: Duncan Sheik
Set and costume designer: Dane Laffrey
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Choreographer: Spencer Liff
Projection designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Vocal designer: Annmarie Milazzo
Presented by Ken Davenport, Cody Lassen, Hunter Arnold, Deaf West Theatre, with Carl Daikeler, Sandi Moran, Chockstone Pictures, Caiola Productions, H. Richard Hopper, Learytodd Productions, R&D Theatricals, Brian Cromwell Smith, Invisible Wall Productions, Monica Horan Rosenthal
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