By Karen Isaacs
When the original production of Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in 2006, I was a little apprehensive about seeing it; it did not sound promising – a play set in Germany in 1891 with rock music.
I walked out of the theater totally entranced by all aspects of the production. It deserved its eight Tony Awards.
Yet, the memory of that original production pales in comparison with the current Broadway revival.
The concept of this revival which originated at Deaf West Theater in California combines non-hearing and hearing performers to tell this story of young people growing up in a sexually repressive culture.
Spring Awakening is based on a play of the same name by Frank Wedekind – an American born but German/Swiss raised playwright of the late 19th century. While his name is not well known both Spring Awakening and the Lulu plays (Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box) which became the plot of Albin Berg’s modern opera classic, Lulu, are both remembered and regarded as influential theater works.
Looking at the plot of the musical, it is easy to see why the original play was banned. It includes sex, homosexuality, abortion and incest/sexual abuse.
In turning the original play into a musical – with only a few plot alterations – Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) created a powerful story with pulsating folk and rock music that tapped into the feelings of the characters.
The story centers on a group of teenagers in a provincial German town in the 1890s. As teenagers they are beginning to feel the physical urges normal for the age. Yet, their parents do not provide information; instead they are given platitudes and vague references to the facts of life. As the young people struggle with their identities, they feel alone as they face the frustrations, uncertainties and urges common of adolescence. The results, unfortunately, are often tragic.
The story focuses on Moritz, the son of the pastor, Melchoir who seems to be the “golden boy” of the group and a girl, Wendla.
But we really learn so much about all of them and so much of it is heart-breaking. Two of the girls have suffered physical – and probably sexual abuse — at the hands of their fathers. A young man is manipulative and seduces a naïve boy. And there is death.
What makes this production unique – and makes it even more powerful – is the integration of hearing and non-hearing performers.
How does this work? Non-hearing performers play the young students sometimes using sign language and sometimes using a projection screen at the back of the stage. But they are “shadowed” by performers who voice their lines and sing the songs. These performers voice just one character though some also play other characters.
You might think that this would be distracting but within a few minutes of the production starting I was absolutely comfortable. Since some of the non-hearing performers mouth the lines, I sometimes forgot they were not actually speaking.
Since two performers actually perform each role I must applaud the duo: Katie Boeck is the voice of Wendla, played by Sandra Mae Franck. Combined they create a touching portrait of young woman desperately wanting answers that her mother refuses or cannot bring herself to supply. Daniel N. Durant who plays Moritz is aided by Alex Boniello to create another heart-breaking character who the school masters have deemed a “failure” and seemed determined to make that label come true. Melchoir is played by Austin P. McKenzie, a hearing performer who is adept also at sign language.
All the adults – various parents, a doctor, school officials – are played by just a man and a woman; though in this production it is actually two of each: a performer who voices the characters and another who “is” the character. Patrick Page voices all the male characters and plays several solo, while Russell Harvard plays the headmaster and the pastor.
Marlee Matlin plays the mother of Melchoir and other roles with Camryn Manheim voicing those roles as well as playing the schoolmistress and the mother of Wendla.
Adding to the effectiveness of this production is the scenic and costume design by Dane Lafrey and lighting by Ben Stanton.
Kudos must go to director Michael Arden who works frequently with Deaf West and choreographer Spencer Liff. Some of these performers may not be able to hear, but they can certainly move and dance effectively.
In a director’s note, Arden tries to connect the banning of the original play with the resolution passed by the Second International Congress of the Deaf (the Milan Conference) in 1902 banning sign language in schools in Europe and the U.S. An interesting and disturbing fact but the connection seems forced. The note does include a statement “we still live in a world where beliefs, cultures and individuals are silenced and marginalized.” While I do agree with that statement and I deplore it, I do believe that we must trust audiences to understand these messages from what is put on the stage rather than notes in the program.
Spring Awakening is at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 W. 47th Street, in a limited run through Jan. 9. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.