Review: 'Spring Awakening" at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Noah Golden

The word revival can often feel like a dirty word among theater folk, as many complain about the lack of original material on Broadway and the copious revivals offered each year (another “Fiddler On The Roof” and “On The Town,” even another “Color Purple”). But Deaf West’s stunning production of “Spring Awakening” is much more than your standard issue revival; it’s a reinvention of a brilliant piece of 21st century musical theater. While I loved the original Broadway production (directed with kinetic energy and a somewhat workmanlike sense of staging by Michael Mayer), this reimagining improves the show in just about every way.

You see, about half the cast of “Spring Awakening” is hearing-impaired and sign the show in American Sign Language (ASL). Some of the hearing cast play separate characters, other double with deaf actors and act as their voice. It may sound complicated, but this revival, inventively staged by actor/director Michael Arden, flows so effortlessly you forget about the interpreting and double casting in the first few minutes. After an onstage, pre-show warm-up, Wendla (deaf Sandra Mae Frank) stands at a mirror and checks her reflection. On the other side stands another Wendla (hearing Katie Boeck) echoing her every movement. Frank’s Wendla grabs a guitar, Boeck’s Wendla takes a scarf and the two swap items through the empty mirror frame. From that moment on it is instantly clear Frank is the body and soul of Wendla, Boeck is her voice. The rest follows seamlessly.

While this isn’t the first Deaf West production that mixes deaf and hearing actors, “Spring Awakening” is perfectly built to incorporate ASL and deaf culture. “Awakening,” first written as a play in the late 19th century, is about a group of teenagers struggling to find themselves in a conservative pastoral community. Between messy-haired Moritz (Daniel N. Durant/Alex Boniello), who can’t concentrate on school due to a stirring in his loins he can’t control or understand, radical Melchoir (Austin McKenzie) who longs for a more liberated society and good-girl Martha (Treshelle Edmond/Kathryn Gallagher) who’s routinely beaten and sexually abused by her father, this is a cast full of young people at war with the adults who run their life.  

And why? Because the adults are quite literally deaf to their ideas and pleas and questions, like in the play’s first scene when Wendla’s mother can’t even bare to explain how her new niece was conceived. Parent to child, teacher to student, friend to friend, this is largely a play about people who cannot or will not communicate with each other. Besides, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s brilliant alt rock score plays more like a concept album than a typical book musical. The songs don’t as much propel the story forward as they do comment on what is going on inside the characters’ minds. Having the deaf characters’ inner voice personified by another person just amps up the poetic stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

Arden’s staging is incredibly thoughtful in dealing with show’s new elements. Every moment and decision is smart and purposeful: when the ASL is verbalized and when it is subtitled; when loud, raucous music echoes through the theater and when the house is totally silent; when the deaf actors abandon their translators and use their own voice to communicate. These disparities create a richly textured production and make a simple moment, such as having Frank’s Wendla sob out loud and unaccompanied, speak volumes emotionally. 

Combined with Spencer Liff’s inventive but unobtrusive choreography, Arden uses the lyrical ASL in ways that are both fun (multiple sets of hands are used in delightfully inappropriate ways during “My Junk”) and gorgeous (like the individually lit gloves in “Mirror Blue Night”). Working on a somewhat prison-like unit set, Arden creates magic with a backdrop and props that could be replicated in most high schools. Chairs, desks, a bed and some stacked bales of hay are used to suggest classrooms, bedchambers and a hayloft. For more intricate settings, Arden uses the cast to create trees and tombstones (in a moving stage picture more than a little reminiscent of “Our Town”) out of their own bodies. He also cracked the code of “Song of Purple Summer,” the melancholy finale, which felt somewhat tangential in the original production. Here, staged as a visual metaphor for the future of the shows’ characters, it is vitally important and one of the purest and most profound bit of staging I’ve seen in a long, long time. 

It’s also clear that Arden knows how to pull terrific performances out of a fresh-faced, scrappy young cast. While this the very definition of an ensemble show –
there are no weak links here – each actor gets moments to shine. Frank, girlishly adorable but with the haunting eyes of an old-soul, brought more depth Wendla than others I’ve seen tackle the part. As her alter ego, Boeck stays respectfully in the shadows until musical numbers like “Whispering” that show off her silky, folk voice. McKenzie, occasionally rough around the edges vocally but magnetically charismatic, brought a younger, less jaded take on Melchoir. Durant’s expressive signing is expertly employed during songs like “Don’t Do Sadness” and perfectly matched with rock-star-in-the-making Boniello, displaying the locked, flamboyant part of Moritz’s psyche. While their characters mostly populate the periphery, Edmond absolutely steals the show during the phenomenal “Dark I Know Well” (a master class of physical acting – I swear you could follow every word of the song’s story even without Gallagher’s smoky vocals) and Krysta Rodriguez brought a free-spirited and deeply wounded charm to runaway Ilse. While this is a show that belongs to the young people, Camryn Manheim, Marlee Matlin, Patrick Page and Daniel Marmion (the sole understudy at my performance) give gravitas and much-needed pathos to the adults.

If I can distill what I felt leaving “Spring Awakening” into one word it would be inspired. I know that’s a loaded word, especially when dealing with a special cast like this. No, I don’t mean inspiring in an after school special, ‘people with disabilities have talent too’ way. No one who saw the magic that happens at the Brooks Atkinson would dare say such treacle. Talent is talent whether you speak or sign, walk or wheel and the more diverse representation we have on Broadway the richer the fabric of American theater, period. But, no, I mean that “Spring Awakening” is the kind of show that left me energized and personally, deeply inspired: Inspired to see what’s next for such a terrifically talented young cast and crew; inspired that innovative, tough works like this are given a chance to play on Broadway; inspired to look at the shows I love and the people in them in new, fresh ways; and, most of all, inspired to continue creating theater in my own life. If that’s not the goal of day at the theater, I don’t know what is.