Much like my review of Rocky Horror, this is a show which it’s hard for me to be impartial about. Spring Awakening is one of my favourite musicals: the beauty of Steven Sater’s language paired with Duncan Sheik’s haunting melodies alone is enough for me to give it 5 stars. Which I probably would have done whether I enjoyed this adaptation or not! Fortunately for me, there are so many incredible facets of this production that I feel completely justified in giving it 5 stars.
Set in 19th century Germany, the story follows a group of young adults and their respective awakenings as they mature, be those emotional or sexual. Such awakenings, however, are much to the disdain of the adults of the play and inter-generational conflict laces the play. What results is a sense of isolation between generations, a sense furthered in Deaf West’s decision to use hearing and deaf actors in this production. There are the children, willing to engage, discuss and learn, and adults who won’t listen, won’t communicate with the children in ASL. Michael Arden’s version brought to light new readings to an already rich play.
While creating a sense of isolation, this simultaneously produces a sense of community between the children. At its heart, this is truly an ensemble piece. From the start of the play, this group dynamic is asserted: the young actors come out and warm up together on stage, while the adults watch over them and us! Throughout the show, this sense of unity is visually affirmed:
Members of the cast come together to form pieces of set and group numbers are performed both in song and American Sign Language, all in sync, moving as one. It’s visually the most stunning performance I’ve seen. The fluidity of it and sheer emotion conveyed in such small gestures is so affecting and effective. Their versions of ‘Bitch of Living’ and ‘Totally Fucked’ worked so well.
Making Broadway accessible for everyone is a great achievement and kudos to Arden for taking steps in this direction. In addition, it features the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway. Which when you think about it is shocking how that’s only just happened. The ASL was incorporated well into the narrative also, emphasising a generational divide between children who can’t hear and parents who won’t listen. My dad was seeing it for the first time and I was such a seamless adaptation that he couldn’t believe it was originally staged without sign language.
Doubling of characters occurs in this production, with Moritz and Wendla both having an onstage hearing and singing counterparts. Doubling as these characters’ Voices, they interact with their counterparts and offer opinions, notably so in the numbers ‘I Don’t Do Sadness’ and ‘I Believe’. As noted, it truly is a group piece of theatre comprised of a strong ensemble cast. Austin P. Mckenzie makes a memorable Broadway debut as Melchior, bringing a youthful energy and dark side to the role. Wendla played by Sandra Mae Frank and her voice Katie Boeck were both moving; the relationship between the two is wholly believable and heartbreaking. Daniel N. Durant made for my favourite version of Moritz, due in part to the doubling of the role with Alex Boniello playing his voice. The scenes with the father were so affective and Durant’s acting in ‘Don’t Do Sadness’ and ‘All Things’ was brilliant. Other notable mentions go to Andy Mientus’ Hanschen, his second incarnation in this role. His scenes with Joshua Castille’s Ernst were a highlight as was how he bore his soul in ‘Totally Fucked’. And by soul I mean butt. Truly though, it’s an ensemble piece through and through and you can see just how close these actors are. This is carried through to their characters, creating a real communal spirit in the production. And if you don’t believe just how in sync they are, read this.
Verdict: a beautifully adapted and executed production and hopefully the first of many more ASL ones.
Spring Awakening ran from 8th September 2015 to 24th January 2016 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It will touring across America in the future; for more information, visit the Spring Awakening website.