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. 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.
Deaf actors in a musical? The prospect sounds challenging, to performers and audiences alike. But you will be surprised at how readily you can assimilate the novelties involved, and soon find yourself pleasurably immersed not in a worthy, let’s-pat-ourselves-on-the-back experience, but simply in a first-rate production of a transporting musical.
“Spring Awakening,” with a fluidly written book by Steven Sater and a beautiful score by Duncan Sheik, is adapted from the 19th-century German play by Frank Wedekind, which was banned after publication. In this production, directed with remarkable finesse by Michael Arden (who starred in the same company’s “Big River,” seen on Broadway in 2003), the primary roles are divided among deaf and hearing actors, with the deaf performers’ songs and some of their dialogue being delivered by actors who double the roles.
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. A similar approach is used for the character of Moritz Stiefel, portrayed by Daniel N. Durant (deaf) and Alex Boniello (hearing). By dressing Ms. Boeck and Mr. Boniello in casual contemporary attire, Mr. Arden sets up a nifty visual echo of the contrast between the show’s period setting and Mr. Sheik’s surging pop and rock music.
The other principal male role, Moritz’s good friend Melchior Gabor, is played by the hearing actor Austin P. McKenzie, who nevertheless, like many in the cast, signs his dialogue and songs. And some of the dialogue is only signed, in which case the “translations” appear scrawled on a blackboard, for those who don’t understand American Sign Language.
True, it may take a few minutes to process the process, as it were. 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.
But a heady dose of sensory overload is what the best musicals deliver anyway; that’s why people become obsessed with them. Here it’s just different elements that contribute to the sensation. 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.
Mr. Arden’s cast also includes a few notable names: the Oscar winnerMarlee Matlin and Camryn Manheim share the half-dozen adult female roles, and Patrick Page portrays many of the stern male authority figures, alongside Russell Harvard. All are terrific: Ms. 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. But the musical’s tone is anything but dour: Mr. Sheik’s guitar- and piano-driven score, nimbly played by a four-piece band embedded in the simple set (abetted by Ms. Boeck, Mr. Boniello and a few other members of the cast), alternates between high-energy songs in which the boys in Moritz’s and Melchior’s class act out their boiling frustrations, and haunting ballads (such as the lovely opening song, Wendla’s “Mama Who Bore Me”).
Fine though the adult actors are — the apparently ageless Ms. Matlin is a graceful presence, particularly as Melchior’s sympathetic mother — it’s the three central characters who truly captivate. The inchoate sexual yearnings heating up inside Wendla (a pre-“Glee” Lea Michele in the original) are movingly depicted by the dark-eyed Ms. 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. Ms. Boeck sings with a plaintive passion that dovetails perfectly with Ms. Frank’s performance
As Moritz, whose problems are as much educational as sexual, Mr. 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.
And as Melchior, Moritz’s tutor in the ways of sex, the handsome Mr. McKenzie gives an impassioned performance that grows in emotional intensity as the musical moves toward its dark ending. He movingly suggests that Melchior’s affection for Wendla may have begun as a burning teenage crush but is quickly maturing into something deeper.
Mr. 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. In fact, the use of sign language, when it is entwined with the high-energy choreography by Spencer Liff, is intriguingly reminiscent of Bill T. Jones’s superb work the first time around.
In a program note, Mr. Arden compares the banning of Wedekind’s controversial play to the earlier suppression of sign language at a Milan conference on the education of the deaf, in favor of an insistence on “oralism” (lip-reading, primarily). 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.