Deaf West’s revival of “Spring Awakening,” which closes on January 24, was my favorite theatrical experience of 2015. As I wrote in my review for On Stage, this stunning production, which features a cast of deaf and hearing actors (as well as having the first Broadway actress in a wheelchair) left me “energized and personally, deeply inspired” by it’s out of the box staging. While “SA” is almost over, Deaf West, the California-based company that produced it, is still going strong. So it seems timely to suggest some new shows that could use the Deaf Talent makeover (also, search #DeafTalent or read “SA” star Sandra Mae Frank’s Washington Post op-ed to learn more about the role deaf actors play in the entertainment industry). This list is no way exhaustive and in no particular order.
The Last Five Years
Deaf West’s two Broadway outings (“Spring Awakening” and “Big River”) have been large-scale shows, so it’d be interesting to see how they would handle something like Jason Robert Brown’s chamber musical. While “Last Five Years” is written as a two-person show, doubling the cast with a deaf and hearing Cathy and Jamie would expand the staging and emotional possibilities. Jamie could literally debate with himself the consequences of cheating. Plus, Cathy’s struggling acting career would take on a whole new meaning if she’s a deaf actress working in mainstream theater. Alex Wyse, who plays the bespectacled Georg in “SA,” would make a killer voice of Jamie.
While “Cabaret” was recently revived on Broadway, it’s inherent duality between the glitzy onstage world of the Kit Kat Club and the crumbling state of pre-WWII Berlin would make the double casting and interpreting feel organic. Perhaps the inhabitants of the Club (like Sally and the Emcee) are deaf, mirroring their cultural deafness to the approaching political upheaval. Hearing actors could take the lead with roles like Cliff and Frau Schneider and, in a reversal of their usual model, could be translated into ASL by cabaret performers perched above the action. “Spring Awakening’s” Sandra Mae Frank could bring her perfectly marvelous charm and sad eyes to Sally, while Camryn Manheim and Andy Mientus could do great things with Schneider and Ernst respectively.
Since the amateur rights to “Wicked” are not available, we’ve only ever seen one production and one vision of the Frank L. Baum prequel. While the Broadway production is great, I’ve always thought that a version of the Stephen Schwartz music that stripped away the large ensemble and pyrotechnics and reimaged it with a smaller scale staging and more practical effects, would give the grandiose story a new and more intimate interpretation. Besides, “Wicked’s” theme of social alienation and otherness would be echoed by having Elphaba and some of the cast be deaf. Treshelle Edmond and Kathryn Gallagher, who both portrayed Martha in “Spring Awakening,” would make a perfect Green Girl pair.
I thought about putting “Legally Blonde” or “Godspell” in this slot, but it was “Hair” that felt like the best fit. The ‘60s rock show has the rebellious rock spirit that the cast of “SA” pulled off so well and has just the right amount of seriousness to balance the freewheeling charm and silliness that comes along with Vietnam-era counterculture. The loose plot and large ensemble could mean a break from the two-actors-playing-the-same-character mold, as it would make sense for the tribe to translate and speak for one another. “SA’s” Amelia Hensley would be right at home as Crissy (perhaps voiced by Katie Boeck), as would Austin McKenzie as Claude and Alex Boniello as Berger.
Hunchback of Notre Dame
“SA” director and actor Michael Arden and Patrick Page recently starred in Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Paper Mill Playhouse. While I unfortunately didn’t get to see that production, it seems like a piece that would fit Deaf West perfectly and give them more family friendly material. In the original novel, Quasimodo is deaf from the bell ringing and uses crude signs to communicate. Having this reflected by an ASL-using Quasi (as well as those who interact with him like Frollo and the gargoyles) would seamlessly fit into the narrative. It would also feel organic to have an un-hunchbacked voice of Quasimodo who could personify the charming and chivalrous man hidden inside Quasi’s stunted body. Besides, Page and Arden know ESL!
Into The Woods
The most obvious choice for a Deaf West follow-up might also be the most promising. There has been a plethora of “Into The Woods” recently ranging from traditional to tweaked (like the Central Park production that used a child narrator and modern clothing) to reinvented (Fiasco’s ten-person staging), so it’s starting to feel like every aspect of “Woods” has been explored. But the daring minds at Deaf West could bring a fresh, new eye to Sondheim’s fairytale musical. The multigenerational cast could provide a lot of casting opportunities and the theme of storytelling (or more importantly not letting someone else’s version of your story define you and your choices) would be perfectly mirrored by the use of ASL. Can you imagine how beautiful a signed “Children Will Listen” would be? Having an onstage narrator (perhaps even a few narrators!) could help with the translating aspect as well and create a fascinating directorial challenge once the narrator gets killed. If I was the cast agent I’d use a lot of “Spring” alums including Marlee Matlin as the Witch, Russell Harvard as the Baker, Ali Stroker as Cinderella, Ren as Red Riding Hood, Joshua Castille as Jack and Daniel Durant/Miles Barbee as the two princes.
What should do you think Deaf West should produce? Write in the comments below