Deaf West’s effervescent new production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical Spring Awakening isn’t the first show I’ve seen featuring deaf actors. But it’s the first on a Broadway scale, and the first musical. It is, to switch metaphorical senses, eye-opening.
Every bit as powerful as the memorable original production, which starred then-newcomers Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff when it first opened on Broadway back in late 2006, this version not surprisingly depends less on its singing voices, though it does have fine ones. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind, it’s set in the sexually repressed society of 1890s Germany, where adolescent schoolchildren chafe against adults’ repression of their kids’ blossoming sexuality, here with tragic results.
Written in the early 1890s, Wedekind’s play wasn’t staged until 1906 and remained controversial long afterwards. When I studied it in Modern Drama class in the 1980s it was probably the last thing I would have imagined as a musical. But lo and behold, Sater (book and lyrics) and Sheik (music) made a dark musical drama of uncommon artistic integrity, with lovely, intelligent songs and crafty dramaturgy adding up to an integral composition that’s engaging from start to finish.
Director Michael Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff have reconceived the staging to enfold a mixed cast of deaf and hearing actors. The deaf cast members sign their lines using American Sign Language (ASL), with hearing counterparts speaking and singing simultaneous translations and in some cases playing instruments too. The roles played by actors who speak and sing are interpreted by signing counterparts. Projected supertitles help too.
The production manages this complexity so well that it not only feels natural but adds a rewarding dimension. ASL comes across as a kind of choreography in itself, at least to a person like me who can’t read it. On stage combined with facial expressions and other body language it enables these skilled actors to express the nuances, the bright sparks and dark depths, of their struggles, at least as fully as the hearing actors do.
The uniformly excellent cast features several notable performances. Deaf newcomer Sandra Mae Frank is an intense, wonderfully sympathetic Wendla, and I loved her vocal counterpart Katie Boeck’s fusion of folk-pop sensitivity with Broadway intensity, both speaking and singing. Daniel N. Durant, also deaf, is as strong as the equally tragic Moritz, with Alex Boniello as his powerful voice.
Austin P. McKenzie’s Melchior lacks the heft of Groff’s but has its own kind of charisma and is nonetheless a bracingly appealing performance. Krysta Rodriguez (First Date, TV’s Smash) and Treshelle Edmond stand out in their small but crucial roles.
Camryn Manheim, Marlee Martin, Russell Harvard, and Patrick Page cover multiple adult roles adeptly, Manheim delightfully funny and Page in glorious voice. But it’s the younger cast, both individually and in the beautiful, crisply staged production numbers, that carries this show.
Aided by a tight band of strings and drums, by inspired and precise lighting by Ben Stanton, and by Dane Laffrey’s smartly repressed costuming and somber scenic design with a gorgeous surprise at the end, the brilliant direction and choreography turn Spring Awakening, already a fine if unusual musical, into something really special and new.
It’s at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, with information and tickets online or by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000.