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Sunday, 11 October 2015 11:30

Broadway Review: SPRING AWAKENING

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Austin P. McKenzie (c) and the Cast of SPRING AWAKENING  Austin P. McKenzie (c) and the Cast of SPRING AWAKENING Photo: Joan Marcus

The affecting new Broadway production from Deaf West Theatre of Spring Awakening comes just six-and-a-half years after the closing of the original Broadway production. This time it is performed by Deaf West Theatre. Wherein, deaf actors are paired with hearing actors who sing their role and read their dialogue while the deaf actor signs and both actors act the role.

Thanks to the direction of Michael Arden and the choreography of Spencer Liff, the signing, the singing, the acting and the choreography are one. They meld together into a continuously flowing ballet, each adding its own texture and layer. ASL (American Sign Language) Masters Elizabeth Greene, Anthony Natale, and Shoshannah Stern and ASL consultant Linda Bove must also be given credit here. It is hard to imagine Arden and Liff completing their job without the assistance of this additional team.

This is the second time that Deaf West Theatre has been on Broadway. Their last outing was with the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Big River in 2003. That production was nominated for two Tony Awards and won a Special Tony Award for the ensemble cast.

In Spring Awakening, when dialogue is not signed, it is projected against the back wall of set designer Dane Laffrey's subterranean setting. The set also serves as a pallet on which Lucy Mackinnon splashes her stunning monochromatic projections.

Spring Awakening is based on the controversial and banned 1891 Frank Wedekind play, Frühlings Erwachen. It taps into the unbridled emotions and sexual desires of coming-of-age teenagers as they rebel against the tight constraints of a Victorian upbringing.

It is a joy to hear Duncan Sheik's driving music and Steven Sater's succinct and poignant book and lyrics. Spring Awakening is steeped in the American musical theatre's rich tradition with ballads like "Touch Me" and "The Word of Your Body" and upbeat, angry numbers like "Totally Fucked" and "The Bitch of Living." The latter come vibrantly to life under the confetti-cake-colored lighting of the talented Ben Stanton (also represented on Broadway with Fun Home).

The cast of Spring Awakening is talented with boundless energy. Featured is a young man making not only his Broadway debut, but his theatrical debut, Austin P. McKenzie. He plays Melchior Gabor with an intensity and focus that come at you like a laser-guided missile. A side note, McKenzie is trained as a special education teacher.

Melchior falls in love with Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank) whose naiveté has been forced upon her by her mother who insists on still telling her that the stork brings babies. This leaves her completely unprepared when she reciprocates Melchior's affection. McKenzie and Frank beautifully share "The Word of Your Body," a song which details Wendla's and Melchior's passion for one another. During this number, Arden uses actors to make a human tree, arms and legs draping across one-another's bodies underscore the sexual tension in the scene as the tree comes to life enveloping Melchior and Wendla in their embrace.

Meanwhile, Moritz Stiefel (Daniel N. Durant) is derided by his school master as a "neurasthenic imbecile," he struggles with his studies trying to satisfy demanding parents whose ideals he will never be able to live up to. When it all comes crashing down, Moritz and his "voice," Alex Boniello, beautifully render "Don't Do Sadness." Even when they are on opposite sides of the stage, they work as one. They are subsequently joined by Ilse for "Blue Wind," a song of defeat.  Krysta Rodriguez gives an outstanding performance of a woman who has already been tarnished by the world.

Andy Mientus is superb as one of the musical's gay characters, Hanschen. The kiss he shares with Ernst during the reprise of "The Word of Your Body" is passionate, moving and hopeful.

The cast also includes Camryn Manheim in several roles, one of which is Frau Gabor's (Melchior's mother) voice. She also plays two other roles. As a school matron and a busty piano teacher, she barks her way through the roles. She pushes and comes off as brusk. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin signs and acts Melchior's mother with a sweet and simple performance.

Patrick Page's thunderous voice and commanding presence are put to perfect use as the intimidating Latin teacher, Herr Sonnenstich and Herr Rilow (the father of Hanschen).

The combining of sign language, sub-titles, lighting design (lights pulsing to the rhythm of the music), and a heavy tactile bass that could be felt as the sound waves enveloped you, help to truly make this an experience for the deaf and the hearing alike. It is a joyous thing when a hearing and non-hearing audiences can so thoroughly enjoy a musical.

View full production credits at IBDB.com

Edited by Bruce W. Greenwood

Additional Info

  • Theatre: Brooks Atkinson Theatre
  • Theatre Address: 256 West 47th St. New York, NY 10036
  • Show Style: Musical
  • Previews:: September 8, 2015
  • Opening Night: September 27, 2015
  • Closing: January 24, 2015
Last modified on Sunday, 11 October 2015 17:41