Review by Tulis McCall
2 October 2015
Spring Awakening has sprung and then some. There are times when you leave the theatre and think, “how can I find words to praise such and such a production?” In this case you might also think, “what is the sign for ‘extraordinary’?” Yes, sign. As in American Sign Language. ASL is the predominant language being used in this production, and Deaf West pulls this off like Houdini did his straight jacket.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name, this is the story of kids looking for answers and the adults who refuse to provide them. It is a story based on silence that uses silence as a literal lynch pin.
When Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank), signing, wonders how babies are made (she is voiced by Katie Boeck) she goes to her mother (Camryn Manheim) who speaks and signs:
For a woman to bear a child, she must… in her own personal way, she must… love her husband. Love him, as she can love only him. Only him… she must love – with her whole… heart.
There. Now, you know everything.
This “silence” is at the center of the story. Without knowing the truth, Wendla and Melchior (Austin P. McKenzie) lead their tribe down the path of sensual awakening. Their young bodies are heat seeking missiles and everyone has everyone in their cross hairs. Their innocence and desire make for mighty partners. The adults (Patrick Page – who voices several roles – Marlee Maitlin and Russell Harvard, both of whom sign) are as rigid as an army of corsets. Memorize, recite, and tow the line. The boys are segregated in their school and driven mad by the archaic rules. The girls are left on their own until someone comes to claim them. Both are wasted assets in the years leading up to revolution and world wars. Mussolini was a teenager, Ida Wells was investigating lynching in our South and reporting on it, Tsar Nicholas was the newly minted Russian ruler. Impressionism was on the way out and Expressionism was on the way in. These kids do not stay innocent for long, and there is pain a plenty to spread around.
Surrounded by the conflict of right vs. explosive change, this band of teenagers create a tribe all their own. I am fairly immune to young people stalking the stages of our theatre. Mostly I find them, well, young. I have little in common with them other than sharing the air we breathe. In this case, however, I connected deeply with these characters. I remembered that time in my life when I was filled with passion and possibilities and not a lot of clear thinking. Adults were maddening. And I had no idea where my road was leading. It is this visceral feeling that Spring Awakening was meant to evoke. This production succeeds brilliantly.
Michael Arden’s direction and Spencer Liff’s choreography create a symphony of movement. Steven Slater’s words and Duncan Sheik’s music explode into blossom while you watch. I saw the 2007 production and found it tedious and loud. This production is nuanced and singular. The voices and signing are so intricate that many times you cannot tell who is voice of a particular character. Which is of course the point. Ditto the phenomenal band who seems to have no leader but plays out of pure instinct. This cast surrenders to the story so completely that the bodies of the voices are invisible and the words of the deaf actors leap to life. The signing eventually becomes a ballet that you start to recognize and understand without intending to.
While Hamilton is busy pulling the oxygen out of the theatrical season, you would do well indeed to treat yourself to this production. For most of us, watching signing will be a revelation. When the lights come up at intermission, however, you will see people signing like crazy to one another and realize these people have been mostly invisible to you all your life. And then, you will wonder why this is the only show in New York where the hearing and deaf members of the audience are on a level playing field.
What’s up with that?
"Any qualms theater-lovers might have about this being a premature, whiplash-inducing revival — the original closed in 2009, after all — will vanish like frost in strong sunlight when the young cast of both hearing and deaf actors floods the stage."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"In Deaf West's exhilarating reboot of the moody and stirring 2007 Tony winner by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the repressed and rudderless kids are lifting more than their voices. They’re also raising their hands to express themselves — and casting a whole new spell."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Michael Arden’s production for the Deaf West company skillfully integrates American Sign Language with Spencer Liff’s choreography, so the doubling of actors doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"What’s good about this Spring are the enduringly powerful songs and several strong performances: Frank and Durant do lovely work, and Russell Harvard brings raw, honest emotion to a violently disapproving father. For all of the valid reservations one can have about this experiment, there’s still beauty to admire, if you’re willing to hear."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"The result is an exhilarating and fluid hybrid of song, word, dance and sign — and a sheer triumph for director Michael Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff. The songs sit seamlessly in the show, often as brightly lit fantasy sequences that snap back into the grim narrative."
Mark Kennedy for Associated Press
"It's an admirable undertaking and I wish I could get behind it. But arriving on Broadway so soon after Michael Mayer's viscerally impactful premiere production won the 2007 Tony Award for best musical, this underpowered, unexceptionally sung post-Glee version seems more of a special presentation than a wholesale reinvention."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Deaf West awakens something new in the show, which is not so much a revival as it is a reinvention — although for the next 15 weeks of its limited run at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, the house should remain nearly packed with those happy to find the Duncan Sheik-scored rock opera back on Broadway in any form."
Peter Debruge for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...