'Spring Awakening': Theater Review

Spring Awakening Production Still - H 2015
Kevin Parry

Spring Awakening Production Still - H 2015

This stirring adaptation of the teen-angst melodrama showcases an artistry unique to Deaf West

A return engagement of Deaf West Theatre's unique revival of the 2007 Tony-winning musical, which combines deaf and hearing-able actors.

When singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik shot to stardom in 1996, it was with “Barely Breathing,” a bittersweet ballad of romantic confusion. At the time it was associated with the teen drama Dawson’s Creek, and seemed to perfectly capture the hyperbolic emotions associated with adolescent love. It’s the kind of song that made Sheik a perfect fit for Spring Awakening, the 2006 musical based on Frank Wedekind’s scandalous 1891 play about teen rebelliousness and hormones run amok in repressive Weimar Germany.

Deaf West Theatre’s unique revival had a successful premiere last fall and is back in a return engagement at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The production features exceptional performances, inspired staging and brilliant use of sign language to overcome the Tony-winning musical’s inherent flaws.

When we first meet Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank voiced by Katie Boeck), her mother scolds her for wearing a child’s dress, which she has clearly outgrown. The young woman’s questions about her body and matters of the heart go unanswered by her prudish guardian, an omission that comes back to haunt her in the second act. The hearing-impaired Frank mimes a stirring performance, married seamlessly with Boeck’s voice as she sings “Momma Who Bore Me,” the play’s opening number, which firmly establishes the show’s tone and conflict.

At school, bright young student Melchior (Austin McKenzie) has modern ideas about sex, civilization and restrictive social mores. But he quickly learns that questioning authority is frowned upon in the classroom. His best friend, Moritz (Daniel N. Durant voiced by Alex Boniello), is under considerable pressure from his father and overbearing school administrators to ace his exam, despite erotic daydreams that steal his attention. Although he passes the test, his professors fail him anyway, leading to tragic consequences.

Read more Duncan Sheik on Deaf West's 'Spring Awakening' and the Movie Adaptation

Stirred by Melchior, revolution is in the air, leading another student, Hanschen (Andy Mientus), to act on his homosexual impulses. Meanwhile, Wendla, intrigued by a friend’s confession that her father beats her regularly, asks Melchior to spank her with a switch. It’s meant to disturb and titillate, but because the scene is motivated merely by curiosity, it plays as kink for kink’s sake. When Wendla and Melchior finally consummate their relationship, they do so armed with little knowledge of basic biology, and even less protection, yielding predictable results.

Soft rock is Sheik’s specialty, notably in the anthemic strains of “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body,” where cello and viola are bowed with befitting bathos. But when it comes to hard rock, tunes like “The Bitch of Living” and “Don’t Do Sadness” sound more like the Jonas Brothers than Led Zeppelin.

Combining deaf and hearing-able actors on the same stage could potentially be distracting, but Deaf West's best productions long ago put those concerns to rest. In Spring Awakening, portions of the dialogue are projected onto designer Dane Laffrey’s battleship-gray set, an expansive wall topped with a catwalk and a recess containing the string players, complemented by bass, drum and guitars on the stage.

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Working with director Michael Arden (who played Tom Sawyer in Deaf West's Tony-winning Big River), choreographer Spencer Liff has replaced Bill T. Jones’ Broadway dance steps with moves that incorporate sign language, weaving it into the natural flow of the production. At times this is almost unnoticeable. But at its best, it enhances the drama with a poetically expressive dimension one would normally associate with avant-garde director Robert Wilson

Arden admirably keeps the show’s many disparate elements in sync, eliciting moving portrayals from his principal actors. And while Steven Sater’s book could use more plotting and better character development, Sheik’s mellifluous melodies carry the material. Cynics may say the music is sappy, and it is. But because sappy is the de facto language of tragic teen romance, Spring Awakening can proudly wear its heart on its sleeve.

Cast: Joey Antonio, Hillary Baack, Miles Barbee, Sean Barna, Katie Boeck, Alex Boniello, Joshua Castille, Julian Comeau, Daniel N. Durant, Treshelle Edmond, Sandra Mae Frank, Kathryn Gallagher, Gabrielle Garza, Sean Grandillo, Karla Gutierrez, Amelia Hensley, Lauren M. Luiz, Austin McKenzie, Daniel Marmion, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, Howie Seago, Daniel David Stewart, Ali Stroker, Natacha Roi, Alexandra 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

Hair and makeup designer: Carol F. Doran

Sound designers: Brian Hsieh, John Nobori
Choreographer: Spencer Liff

Presented by: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Deaf West Theatre, The Forest of Arden, Cody Lassen, Ken Davenport, John C. Hall