Michael L. Quintos
There's a moment you know… that you're about to experience something unique, groundbreaking, and truly extraordinary.
In Deaf West Theatre's soul-baring, emotionally powerful new production of the Tony Award-winning stage musical SPRING AWAKENING, that moment, for me at least, came very early on—and pretty much stayed with me throughout the entire experience... and long afterwards.
This vibrantly conceived, must-see theatrical marvel—which sensitively combines the visual elegance of ASL (American Sign Language) with the sublime words and music of Steven Sater and Duncan Shiek—is currently playing a limited return engagement, this time at the posh Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through June 14 (earning a well-deserved extension from its original June 7th closing), after first wowing both critics and audiences last fall during its initial run at the Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts.
And no wonder.
To put it succinctly, this bold new SPRING AWAKENING is an absolute work of genius. A true labor of love.
If I am to be completely honest, Deaf West Theatre's production of SPRING AWAKENING is perhaps the most deeply moved I have ever been at the theater.
Much of the credit for this incredible work of art can be pinpointed to the production's director and chief creative force, actor Michael Arden—who himself is no stranger to the distinguished history of Deaf West Theatre. Back in 2003, Arden made his Broadway debut in Deaf West Theatre's critically-acclaimed revival of BIG RIVER, then later went on to play the singing-half of the title role in Deaf West Theatre's 2009 Los Angeles revival of PIPPIN at the Mark Taper Forum.
For his highly creative, deeply-felt re-imagining of SPRING AWAKENING, Arden introduces fresh, inspired revisions, gorgeously visualized tableaus, and cleverly mapped-out staging choices to make this already intense musical about teens and their relationship with sexuality into an even more powerful one—filled with magnified moments of rousing joy, fiery anger, and, more abundantly, of devastating sorrow. In his hands, the musical takes on a heightened sense of poignancy, deftly amping up the angst, fears, and confusion of adolescence.
More significantly, the mutually-beneficial marriage of sign language and spoken/sung words in this SPRING AWAKENING is quite mesmerizing to watch, especially when executed with such fervor and passion by this production's marvelous ensemble.
The aim to integrate the intrinsic beauty of sign language with the raw, vivid emotions of youth is further enhanced with Arden's fruitful collaboration with choreographer Spencer Liff, whose stunning modern-lyrical dance movements echo the grace of ASL and deaf culture. Because the lyrical, expressive beauty of signing itself feels very much like dance, Liff keenly treats it as such, then frames many of the production numbers around them, creating a hypnotic, gorgeous mélange of writhing bodies, curated movements, loaded facial expressions, and yes, carefully-timed hand gestures that many in the audience can understand.
Not only is ASL utilized as an expected means to communicate, it is also seamlessly weaved into this production's dazzling choreography. Just in terms of the movements and gestures, this visual language, executed with its own set of specific moves, adds layers of meaning and context… some subtle and subdued for more reticent moments, some intensified with forceful conviction for grief or even rage. Accessibility for all is, without question, of utmost importance—but why not present it artistically as well?
Depending on intent, the use of sign language here purposely matches the rhythms hovering over any given scene. This, naturally, gives an an added oomph and vigor to rock anthems “Totally F**ked” and “Bitch of Living,” lots of extra cheeky humor to “My Junk," while providing plenty more heartbreaking gravitas to “I Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” “Touch Me,” “Those You've Known,” “Whispering,” and, most tragically, in “Left Behind.”
Additionally, in a bit of storytelling ingenuity, Arden also highlights touching moments in the show when a character's hearing impairment is yet another layer that greatly impacts their story. Often, we witness the troubling, further complications of miscommunication and misunderstanding between characters—particularly between the teenagers and the adults—which seems to double when one's deafness is included in the equation.
So by taking an already exceptional musical to begin with (itself adapted from Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 play) and then elevating it to an entirely different plateau that strengthens both its theatrical style and thematic substance, this beautifully compelling production of SPRING AWAKENING—a feast of emotional riches for both hearing and hearing-impaired audiences—is the perfect example of what superb, creatively-curated live theater can evoke.
Everything from its thoughtful, riveting staging and passionate cast performances (of both hearing and signing actors), to the enthralling choreography, the pitch-perfect singing voices, the exquisite orchestrations, the exhilarating musical accompaniment, the mood-enhancing lighting and projections, and pretty much every aspect in between—all of it amounts to one of the most stirring, brilliantly-conceived theater pieces I have ever had the honor of experiencing. I mean, seriously… wow. And, I mean… WOW.
Indeed, Deaf West Theatre's SPRING AWAKENING has no difficulty searing itself into you right from the start.
Even before the show itself officially begins, as patrons begin filling up the theater, members of the show's ridiculously attractive cast are mingling about on the rather bare stage. Some are casually conversing—both in inaudible whispers and in sign language—while others are either tuning or playing notes with their instruments, sharing kind pleasantries, meditating in quiet solitude, or getting undressed/dressed into their period costumes (most of the musical's core cast are in late-19th Century German garb, while a few others are in hip, current-day fashions).
The silent simplicity of this almost naturalistic scenario of actors getting ready to do a show may seem unremarkable at first, yet somehow, as the hubbub of activity continues, we as an audience of both hearing and hearing-impaired patrons are equally fascinated—further fueling the anticipation for whatever earth-shaking events are still to come.
Soon, the actors all wind their way to their places on the stage, putting a hushed punctuation to the semi-chaos of criss-crossing actors, musicians, objects, instruments, and lights.
It is then that our attention lands on a beautiful young lady admiring herself longingly in front of an upright mirror (though there is no glass, only the frame) wearing a rather sheer, skimpy frock resembling a nightgown. She is Wendla, a typical teenage girl—who just happens to be deaf. But much like her peers (both hearing and deaf), she too is curious about life, the world around her, and, at this particular moment, her blossoming sexuality. Wendla, played with mesmerizing ferocity by Sandra Mae Frank, embodies that familiar awkward stage of an adolescent—where one is caught between knowing the facts and being shielded from them by adults.
Positioned opposite from her—acting as her mirror-image, or, perhaps, as a reflection of her inner spirit—is a taller girl, with somewhat similar features, but dressed a bit more modern and in a... well, less revealing outfit. Suddenly this taller girl, played by Katie Boeck, begins singing (and, gosh, she sounds so lovely, I already have goosebumps), while her Wendla counterpart, still dressed in her nightgown, begins using ASL to visibly convey the lyrics her mirror-spirit is singing (cue more goosebumps).
This shared construct between the two young ladies, in a way, becomes this intriguing pas de deux of singer and signer—a symbiotic, harmonious commingling of artistic expressions that reoccurs with several more pairings of deaf and hearing actors throughout SPRING AWAKENING. It's such a savvy, intelligent bit of theatrical inventiveness that works so well with this particular musical on so many different levels, that you can't help but feel even more immersed and invested in these characters' heartaches and frustrations as they navigate their lives within their rather imperfect utopia.
For its rapt audience, watching both hearing and deaf actors dramatize this profoundly emotional musical with ASL—a language so gloriously swathed in hypnotic, poetic beauty—is definitely what sets this production apart from previous iterations.
Besides the awesome pair of Frank and Boeck sharing the role of Wendla—in a sort of flesh-and-blood human meets musical spirit kind of connectivity—many of the show's characters are also presented in the same manner: one actor vividly acts out the role with ASL (in period costume), another provides a corresponding singing voice (in modern attire). The results? Nothing short of amazing. My gosh, these kids are super talented.
The expressively moving and rather endearing Daniel N. Durant plays the role of the very troubled Moritz, a young man continually intrigued (and frightened) by his sexually-charged nocturnal dreams. Durant “shares” the role with rock god-looking guitarist Alex Boniello, who provides Moritz's terrific singing voice while also hovering as his inner conscience. Treshelle Edmond plays poor Martha, a young girl who suffers from frequent beatings from his father. Martha is given vocal life by Kathryn Gallagher, whose lively guitar licks are nicely matched by her fantastic singing voice.
Other notable pairings include the adorable Joshua Castille, who plays Ernst, the timid boy who has a crush on his fellow male classmate, while his sweet singing is provided by pianist Daniel David Stewart. Otto is personified by Miles Barbee and his singing provider, bassist Sean Grandillo. And Amelia Hensely plays Thea, with her singing voice is supplied by Lauren Luiz.
In addition to these dual-cast roles, SPRING AWAKENING also features an outstanding array of cast members who both sing and sign their roles. As Hanschen, Andy Mientus (reprising the role he played in the National Tour and who is also Arden's real-life fiancé) provides many welcome moments of comic relief, particularly when seducing shy classmate Ernst. Alex Wyse, who plays young piano teacher-obsessed Georg slays the audience with his absolutely marvelous vocal riffs in “Touch Me” (one of the evening's best musical highlights). Ali Stroker, whom many remember from her roles on both Glee and The Glee Project provides lovely, solid work as another of Wendla's friends, Anna.
One of the many cast additions for this Wallis transfer is Broadway and TV star Krysta Rodriguez, who is just supremely stunning and altogether memorable in her role as Ilse. Her heartbreaking turn as a runaway teen living the life of a destitute nomad is even more amplified in this production than ever before (the fact that Rodriguez's own real-life battle with cancer is infused into the character will absolutely shake you to the core). Every time her character takes the stage, you can't take your eyes off her—this performance was just unbelievably great.
To provide foils for our young characters, a quartet of outstanding adult actors also mix in playing a variety of different roles. Daniel Marmion and Natacha Roi make significant appearances throughout, but are best remembered for playing the strict Latin teacher and Wvendla's protective mother, respectively (they also occasionally give voice to the deaf adults in the narrative). On hand to play deaf adult characters are Hillary Baack, whose presence as Melchior's empathetic mother provides a hopeful light; and Howie Seago, who among other authority figures provides a shudder-inducing turn as Moritz's father.
In one of this show's most searing moments I can't soon forget, Seago, as Moritz's father, hears the news from his son (played by Durant) that he has failed school. Voraciously mad of his son's failings, Moritz's father (who is also deaf) is so livid that he physically brings himself to yell out a sound of anger to his son, even though neither can hear it. The need to express this anger is so powerful in that scene, that merely signing his deep disappointment just isn't enough. Wow, what a moment.
But by far, this musical's emotional core is, of course, the young man at the center of it all. Armed with strong convictions and an irrepressible need to search out facts and form well-thought-out declarations and opinions supported by truth and justice, student radical Melchior Gabor is the intellectual and spiritual beacon for his friends and peers.
Deaf West Theatre's production should thank the stars for finding their perfectly-cast Melchior in talented, fresh-faced actor Austin McKenzie. A true talent blessed with incredible acting instincts and a singing voice that will make you well-up with emotions, McKenzie fills Melchior's britches quite convincingly, alternating between confidence, gentleness, and vulnerability with equal dexterity. His rapport and palpable chemistry with both best friend Moritz (Durant) and would-be paramour Wendla (Frank) help solidify his role as a fitting, compelling bridge between the deaf world and the hearing one. As an audience member, McKenzie's characterization of Melchior makes you want to both cheer for and protect the guy at the same time. Bravo, Mr. McKenzie!
Also deserving of kudos: Jared Stein's musical direction, which helped envelope the Wallis with sonic beauty; Dane Laffrey for his scenic and costume designs which provided a union of period and modern on the same stage; Ben Stanton's stark and mood-enhancing lighting; and Lucy Mackinnon for her eye-popping projections that were like painted modern canvases.
Admittedly, after seeing Arden's top-notch new SPRING AWAKENING, I'm not sure I'm able to experience this show in quite the same way ever again. The integration of singing voices with ASL feels so natural and inspired here that you almost wonder why all musicals can't be performed in this manner—so a wider spectrum of audiences can enjoy the same stage musical.
This SPRING AWAKENING pierces through your heart and mind and never lets go. Not only is this astutely-executed production a remarkable achievement in musical theater stage-craft, it also packs an even bigger emotional wallop than previous iterations have ever attempted. In many moments during the musical, the show feels very much like a dreamscape, full of kinetic, bursting energy and picturesque tableaus that give the narrative new importance and vibrancy. Communicating itself with great power, the show can really strike a chord with its audience. I, for one, was not fully prepared—two songs in—to be so quickly reduced to tears.
But most thrilling of all: the show is remarkably accessible to everyone in the best, most dramatically-satisfying way possible. Unsurprisingly, even the music soars more than ever here, even if you're someone unable to actually hear any of it.
Even the ending was so beautifully uniting and unexpected—a new coda that features a lovely, otherworldly tableau that is both wonderfully hopeful yet profoundly haunting at the same time. What Arden and company have accomplished in this production is just breathtaking.
This SPRING AWAKENING, as I immediately tweeted after seeing the show, can still be described thusly: "THIS is so moving, so gut-wrenching... So unbelievably beautiful…" If there is any way you can, do yourselves a favor and experience THIS for yourself.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Kevin Parry, courtesy of Deaf West Theatre.
Performances of SPRING AWAKENING, a production of Deaf West Theatre and The Forest of Arden have been extended at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through June 14. For tickets or for more information, please go to www.deafwest.org or thewallis.org.