New York City Theater
Brooks Atkinson Theater
Layer upon layer upon layer. Start with a daring 1891 play about the sexual divide between old and young. Add a contemporary, anachronistic rock score, definitely not from the 19th century. Top it all with a cast of half hearing, half deaf actors, all of whom use American Sign Language, and you have Deaf West’s sensual revival of “Spring Awakening.”
With each permutation, meaning changes. What was originally playwright Frank Wedekind’s controversial work about adolescent sexuality (including abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, illegitimacy and suicide) that was occasionally banned, often censored has, with the passage of time, lost much of its shock. Yet even in 2006, its first appearance as a musical, the Tony-winner stirred adverse reactions, at least partly because it reflected still prevalent reticence on the part of adults. (After all, many states skip sex education or relegate it to abstinence only. Hello, Kansas, are you listening?)
But this revival slips past all that possible salaciousness. Because it combines deaf and hearing actors, it’s more about communication and the lack thereof. Not only do parents and children talk past one another, as they always have, but now everyone seems to be struggling to reach out and connect personally, physically, stymied by an overload of electronic devices.
The story of hormonal youngsters with too little information leads to tragedy. Wendla knows nothing about where babies come from. When she asks, her mother tells her, “For a woman to bear a child, she must, in her own personal way, love her husband . . . only him.”
Obviously, when Wendla falls in love with Melchior (Sara Mae Frank and Austin P. McKenzie, both yearning), her lack of information is destructive. A similar fate befalls Moritz (the wonderful Daniel N. Durant) although Ilse (a fierce Krysta Rodriguez) has escaped society’s confines and tries to save him.
It’s significant that Frank and Durant are deaf while McKenzie and Rodriguez are not. Again, communication is difficult through language but possible through feeling. It helps that, when the deaf actors sign their dialogue and lyrics, others give them voice (Katie Boeck for Wendla, Alex Boniello for Melchior).
What could be confusing eventually becomes routine. Thus, we hear and see simultaneously. Poetry permeates both speech and gestures which sometimes softens the show’s impact. These youngsters, put upon by parents, teachers and religious leaders, seem perfectly capable of emerging from their cocoons on their own, having overcome handicaps.
Still, Steven Sater’s book and lyrics, as matched by Duncan Sheik’s pulsating music, go a long way to assure the musical’s place in the pantheon. With a strong physical production, inventive choreography by Spencer Liff and remarkably stirring direction by Michael Arden, this “Spring Awakening” makes for a rousing evening.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 8, 2015