A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Michael Mayer enhanced this exciting new addition to our contemporary musical canon with some brilliant directorial touches; for example, while dressing the actors to fit the story's time and place he had hand-held mikes popping into their hands as if by magic as they sang distinctly contemporary songs. Mayer also smartly took a cue from John Doyle's casting of instrument playing actor-singers for several cast members and he ingeniously made room on stage for budget priced bleacher seats where inactive actors were seated amidst the audience.
Now this unique packaging of a more than hundred-year-old play as a rock popera has returned to Broadway, proving once again that if the music is appealing enough and the story's themes enduring, directorial brilliance and originality can strike more than once. And without emphasis on movie star casting.
All the songs are still there. The teen aged characters who so vividly evoked the timeless angst, innocence and not to be denied sexuality of Wedekind's tragi-comedy drama are still on stage, as are their rigid, controlling elders. And this cast of mostly unknowns couldn't be better.
This time around the show is collaboratively staged by director Michael Arden's Forest of Arden Theater and the Deaf West Theatre. The latter is known for its way of reimagining musicals by assigning certain roles to two actors— one singing, the other signing (most famously the Tony winning Big River in which Arden played Tom Sawyer). Their Spring Awakening is more than a revival,but a brand new, mesmerizing experience, Given that ASL has its own grammar and rules, Deaf West's translation of the text adds a subtle artistic layer that actually deepens and enriches the story telling.
The show actually begins even as the audience members are still taking their seats. The cast members arrive in white underwear and mingle about, conversing,engaging in warm-up exercises as well as whispered and signed conversations. By the time the story gets underway early arrivals have seen the boys and girls change into costumes. This sort of getting ready for a show has been done before but here it also sets the tone for what's to come: the intermingling of hearing and deaf actors who will speak, sing and, in some cases, play instruments. . . as well as the conflict between all these young innocents' joi-de-vivre and sexual awakenings and the adults whose rigidity probably stemmed from their own repressive youths.
The frustration of the full of hope and curious young and the effectiveness of the dual casting is evident in the very first scene. Here Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank as the deaf Wendla and Katie Boeck her singing guitar playing alter ego), one of the libretto's key awakening teen agers, can't get a straight answer about how babies are conceived from her mother (Camryn Manheim). Having Frank and Boeck on opposites of the mirror, with Boeck singing the plaintive "Mama Who Bore Me" makes for a seamless merging of their characters as well as the 19th Century setting and decidedly contemporary music. Having the girls who make up the ensemble immediately reprise it typifies the mesmerizing visual staging throughout.
Frank and Boeck continue their beautifully rendered me and my shadow performances and this format is followed by other key characters. Daniel N. Durant and his voiced shadow Alex Boniello intensify how the hapless Moritz's uncontrollable sexual dreams turn his already problematic school grades into complete failure. "The Bitch of Living" still resonates powerfully. As played by one of the adult deaf actors, Russell Harvard, the father's angry reaction to news of Moritz's failure is especially devastating.
There's no doubling for Melchior, the show's nominal hero who stands up for Moritz and defiantly reads a forbidden text addressing issues stubbornly kept under wraps by parents, educators and clergy. It's a true case of a star is born for hearing actor Austin P. McKenzie. His "Totally Fucked" is a deserved show stopper. While his Melchior both sings and speaks (passionately so), he also signs his songs which is also true of the entire cast. In some instances dialogue is all signed, but no worries for hearing audiences unfamiliar with ASL about missing something, since there's a blackboard onto which a translation is projected.
Wendla and Melchior discovering what the new awareness of their bodies is all about, with the inevitable unintended and tragic consequences is just one issue explored. Parental abuse comes into play via Martha (a poignant Treshelle Edmond, voiced by guitar strumming Kathryn Gallagher) and leads to a dark bit of masochistic interplay between Wendla and Melchior. Melchior's revelations also prompt the handsome Hanschen(Andy Mientus) to act on his homosexual yearning in a reprise of "The Word Of Your Body" with Ernst (Joshua Castille and his piano playing voice, Daniel David Stewart).
Arden has stayed true to Wedekind's dour period piece and Sater and Sheik's pop-rock score. But, without taking anything away from the original, this is indeed a unique new look at an already unique musical. Spencer Liff's choreography and the mood supporting design team have made this not just a casting but a revival coup.
If you're into comparisons and want more plot details, you can check out my review of both the Atlantic Theater and the Broadway productions here .
©Copyright 2015, Elyse Sommer.
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