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Spring Awakening

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 27, 2015

Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening. Book & lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Directed by Michael Arden. Choreographed by Spencer Liff. Scene & costume design by Dane Laffrey. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Soudn design by Gareth Owen. Projection design by Lucy KmacKinnon. Hair & wig design by Carol F. Doran. Orchestrations by Duncan Sheik. Cast: Camryn Manheim, Patrick Page, Russell Harvard, Robert Ariza, Miles Barbee, Katie Boeck, Alex Boniello, Joshua Castille, Lizzy Cuesta, Daniel N. Durant, Treshelle Edmond, Sandra Mae Frank, Kathryn Gallagher, Sean Grandillo, Elizabeth Greene, Amelia Hensley, Van Hughes, Lauren Luiz, Daniel Marmion, Austin P. McKenzie, Andy Mientus, Ren, Krysta Rodriguez, Daniel David Stewart, Ali Stroker, Alexander Winter, Alex Wyse, and Marlee Matlin.
Theatre: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Spring Awakening Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

The most acclaimed and remembered moment of Deaf West Theatre's Big River, which landed on Broadway in 2003, is still talked about today. At the climax of a huge reprise in the second act, the cast's singing and the orchestra's playing suddenly ceased, transforming what hearing audiences expected to be a cathartic melodic release into something arrestingly different. As the full stage of performers continued signed their arms off for the remainder of the song, the entire audience became united in an experience that transcended traditional notions of the senses.

Spoiler alert: Nothing so bold happens in Deaf West's production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's 2006 musical Spring Awakening, which just opened at the Brooks Atkinson (after its initial Los Angeles run last year), though silence is critical to the two scenes that contribute the most to the success this revival, directed by Michael Arden (who appeared as Tom Sawyer in Big River), enjoys.

In the first, troubled student Moritz Stiefel (Daniel N. Durant) must tell his strict father (Russell Harvard, of Off-Broadway's Tribes, the TV series Fargo, and the film There Will Be Blood) that, despite all his hard work, he will not be moving ahead to the next grade. In the second, the 14-year-old Wendla Bergmann (Sandra Mae Frank) has a confrontation with her own mother (Camryn Manheim, of The Practice and Person of Interest) about, shall we say, an even more personal and devastating matter.

Through both, the interplay between what's heard and what's not throws chilling light onto these troubles. As both Durant and Harvard use American Sign Language (ASL), father and son relate to each other (or not) in a very particular way; the bond and the stresses between the characters played by the speaking Manheim and the signing Frank are altogether different. And, in each scene, one deaf performer dropping the ASL and giving real voice to their woes unleashes a flood of pain and disappointment well beyond the power of the scripted words to express.

Daniel N. Durant, Austin P. McKenzie, and Alex Boniello.
Photo by Joan Marcus

The entire company is at least fine and frequently better than that. Among the better of the young performers are Frank, who projects a genuinely trusting innocence, and Durant, who embodies psyche-skewing complexities without descending into visibly drug-addled mania. (Their singing counterparts, Katie Boeck and Alex Boniello, veer toward overstretching, but are generally good.) As the all-knowing, unintentionally disruptive Melchior, Austin P. McKenzie (who speaks, sings, and signs) is bright and appealing, if bereft of any sinister shadings that might temper the role.

Though there's a bit of unsteadiness in the alternation of the adults who sign (Harvard and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin) and speak (Manheim and Patrick Page), the actors find in the people they play strands of discontentment with the strictures that apply to them. The better-known younger musical theatre names who take on roles, Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez, respectively approach Hanschen and Ilse a bit too broadly, but with no shortage of gusto.

Spencer Liff's choreography seamlessly integrates with the signing, creating a dreamlike visual poetry that plunges you into the minds of the story's teens who are discovering themselves and sex (not necessarily in that order) for the first time. The sets and costumes (by Dane Laffrey), the lights (Ben Stanton), and the projections (Luck MacKinnon), the last of which allow Arden additional ways to convey dialogue that can't be spoken, operate in sufficient sync to explore how dark and unforgiving adolescence can be when no adult seemingly can (or will) help.

In some cases the deaf element does extend and expand this idea. There is an understated undercurrent of tension between those who can hear and those can't (an early exchange between Moritz and his Latin teacher, who refuses to let him sign, foremost among them), which Arden explains in a director's note in the Playbill as referencing the outcome of an 1880 resolution from the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. That's not an inapt or unwelcome analogue to the alienation that the show otherwise attempts to address.

But, at least for hearing audiences, no well-meaning effort can accomplish as much as it needs to. Regardless of how it's approached, Spring Awakening is just not a good musical. Though it's based on based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 German play Frühlings Erwachen (or Spring's Awakening), it abandons the original's sharpest edges and haunting overtones in favor of garden-variety 2000s angst and whining that don't naturally sing and in fact barely speak. The result is a desiccated, smarmy, and electron-thick evening that, as writing, satisfies on no theatrical level.

Sater's book drastically simplifies the relationships and erodes their teeth so they'll not even offend our present-day morality, but in doing so denudes elements in the Wedekind that still shock with their frankness (a borderline-violent encounter in a hayloft is cushy and romantic, two despondent gay boys finding hope in each other is played for all-out laughs). And the final scene, which replaces one vital character and an unsettling recasting of another with two inspirational ghosts, is pure, heart-dead pablum.

Though Sheik's music (which is played by a group of onstage musicians who intermittently mingle with the actors and occasionally take on roles) does echo with alternately searching and raging strains that are correct for wrenching these people across more than a century, Sater's lyrics are witless,confusing, and often make no sense even within the musical's tortured internal logic. Only in the two numbers that focus on unhinged internal range, "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked," does the alchemy come close to working; you accept, as you can't elsewhere, that emotions are becoming unmoored and erupting in fire. The show needs more of that kind of thing.

What you get instead are, for example, Wendla's "Mama Who Bore Me," which is immediately rendered nonsensical as it's followed by a conversation in which she despairs that mom won't tell her where babies come from. Or how later, after first having sex, a girl sings "Our bodies are the guilty ones," a fascinating insight given her professed ignorance of the sexual act and the shame that society demands accompany it. Then there's "The Song of Purple Summer" finale, packed with jumbled feel-good imagery like "The earth will wave with corn / The gray-fly choir will mourn / And mares will neigh with / Stallions that they mate, foals they've borne."

You are not, of course, supposed to think about any of this. That's why Arden and Deaf West are making something akin to magic here: Their specific application of their issues guides us to Spring Awakening on their terms, which are vastly more compelling than the show's. I cared about the struggle of the deaf children in an uncaring, hearing world, and wished right alongside them that they'd find the absolution and satisfaction they sought. In their own, unique way, they convinced me—without going as far as Big River—of the virtues of silence, and how it, like so much else in life, is something that has to be fought for. If a lumbering, smoke-spewing jalopy is the required vehicle for getting to that worthwhile message, I, for one, will take it.

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