Monday, September 14, 2015

Spring Awakening

Two young women reflect each other through a mirror. One is dark-haired and slight, with a deeply expressive face. The other is blond and fuller-bodied, with a guitar strapped to her back. They both sing: one uses her voice; the other, her hands. Despite their differences, there is no question that they reflect the same person. This is how Deaf West's extraordinary production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening announces itself.

photo: Kevin Parry
Directed by the actor Michael Arden, this revival of the 2006 musical -- currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, after a successful run in Los Angeles -- puts the action in the context of the 1880 Second International Conference on Education of the Deaf, which occurred a decade prior to the publication of Franz Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, on which the musical is based. Known colloquially as the Milan Conference, it banned the teaching of sign language in favor of lip reading and oralism. Assimilation was prescribed as the only answer to the "deaf question;" those who could not essentially pass for hearing had no place in society.

This history offers the perfect framing device for a musical about a group of young people who feel alienated by their world. A scene involving young scholars tasked with reciting Virgil from memory in class takes on new meaning when Moritz (acted by Daniel N. Durant, who is profoundly deaf; the role is sung by Alex Boniello) finds that he cannot speak. In past productions, a tendency to view Moritz as an ignoramus has been somewhat unavoidable; here, it's impossible to ignore that his quote-unquote failures are the product of a society that could not allow him to survive.

The tableaux created by the use of American Sign Language are uniformly stunning; moreover, they add to the weight of the musical nearly across the board. And the performers -- both hearing and deaf -- are so beautifully committed to the project that it is impossible not to be immersed. The central role of Melchior is played by Austin P. McKenzie, who is a trained sign language interpreter. He has a lovely voice and benefits from looking much younger than his actual age (I have no idea how old he is, but his bio mentions college; he could easily pass for twelve). A fine actor who signs expressively, he bridges the gap between the two worlds in the cast.

The Wendlas -- deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank and hearing actress Katie Boeck -- could not be more different physically, yet there's no question that they are one and the same. Boeck's possesses a haunting voice imbued with an almost folk style; she ably accompanies herself on guitar. Frank conveys so much with the simplest look or gesture that I often found myself seeking her out in crowded scenes. If that planned revival of Children of a Lesser God gets off the ground, here's an ideal Sarah Norman.

First among equals, though, is Durant, who is the most fully successful Moritz I've ever seen. It's an emotionally diverse role, requiring humor, anger and pathos. Despite barely speaking a word, Durant encompasses all of these emotions and more. Ably aided by Boniello -- who looks like the love child of Robert Smith and Billie Joe Armstrong -- Durant makes you laugh and then, a split second later, breaks your heart. I hope to see more and more from this compelling actor in the future.

The ensemble is an embarrassment of riches. Broadway veterans Andy Mientus, Alex Wyse, and Krysta Rodriguez are distinctive in small roles. Debutantes Treshelle Edmond, Joshua Castille, Amelia Hensley, Ali Stroker, and Miles Barbee all hold their own. The singers and musicians who give voice to the deaf and hearing-impaired actors -- Kathryn Gallagher, Sean Grandillo, Lauren Luiz, Daniel David Stewart, and Alexandra Winter -- are uniformly superb.

Marlee Matlin, Russell Harvard, Camryn Manheim, and Patrick Page comprise the quartet of adult performers, playing a multitude of roles. The roles are all broad caricatures -- concerned parents, tyrannical teachers -- but these talented performers mine them for whatever humanity they can generate. A scene in which Harvard (so fine on stage several years ago in Tribes) and Durant play father and son is particularly devastating.

There is no other way to describe Arden's production than to call it a work of genius. Much has been written -- and necessarily so -- about the need for Broadway to become more diverse, more inclusionary. It is gratifying to a see a major Broadway musical that features a half-dozen or more dear/hearing-impaired actors, as well as the first actor in a wheelchair ever to appear on Broadway (Ali Stroker, who's a star), a cancer survivor, several out performers, and performers of color. This is what Broadway should be. In a season that shot off to a vibrant start with Hamilton, another absolutely essential musical has come to town. See it while you can. -- by Cameron Kelsall

[purchased ticket, 5th row center orchestra]

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