Spring Awakening: Theater review by David Cote
Ghosts drift through Steven Sater’s aching, spiky lyrics to the 2006 musical Spring Awakening. In four of the songs, heart-searingly scored by Duncan Sheik, characters liken themselves to a specter—bodiless, detached, lost. Such imagery fits a story about German teens circa 1891, baffled by the overwhelming sexual urges that make them strangers in their own bodies. What’s interesting about the revival of this still-stirring work is how some of the characters have ghosts (of a sort) trailing behind. The virginal Wendla Bergmann, yearning so much for contact that she goads a classmate into beating her with a switch, is played (vibrantly) by deaf actor Sandra Mae Frank. Wendla’s voice is provided by Katie Boeck. Likewise, the dangerously high-strung Moritz Stiefel is embodied by Daniel N. Durant, vocalized a few feet away by Alex Boniello. Meanwhile, the doomed golden boy Melchior is portrayed by the hearing Austin P. McKenzie, who signs as he speaks and sings. Feeling confused? You can relate to how these haunted, rattled youths.
This version, which originated at Los Angeles’s Deaf West Theatre, has both practical and metaphorical goals. By casting deaf actors, it provides much-needed opportunities for an underused segment of the theater community (the luminous Marlee Matlin makes a welcome return as various uncomprehending mothers). But there’s a symbolic function, too: themes of parents and children not listening to each other, or students who feel isolated and excluded, all are keenly evoked in Michael Arden’s concept.
For all of that poetic resonance, though, there are drawbacks in execution. Spring Awakening’s original production, with inspired direction by Michael Mayer, ingeniously integrated 19th-century and modern imagery to thrilling effect (kids breaking the fourth wall, and period stiffness, howling their angst into handheld mics). Here, with the interpolation of signing and doubled actors, the integration suffers, having a third performance vocabulary to juggle. The score still sounds great, but it’s just not as fluidly performed to maximize the emotional impact, and the book is harder to follow. Worsening matters, Dane Laffrey’s set is a bit of a muddle—scaffolding for no good reason other than creating different levels but which actually make little spatial sense. The lighting and video are frankly rather ugly, and there are holes in Arden’s staging that leave us confused about the meaning of Wendla’s and Moritz’s avatars. Are they characters in the play world or part of the band? Why does Moritz, when he contemplates suicide, suddenly look like his speaking, rocking-out alter ego? What message is that sending out?
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.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre (Broadway). Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Michael Arden. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
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This production of Spring Awakening was put on my radar from being a "Switched at Birth" fan for so many years. The energy of this production is unbelievable and the music and acting is just as electrifying. The use of deaf characters and their hearing alter egos as well as the integration of signing into the dialogue were two my favorite additions to this version. I only wish there were more Deaf West productions to see in New York!
I read about the show before attending. When I read that Lea Michele was a part of the original cast, I told myself - "this shit is going to suck!" Nope. nah. naw. That wasn't the case - Sorry, Lea, I love you, but this show was just as phenomenal if you were in it! The score, actors and set - alllllll were amazing! Not to mention the nudity and sex scene. Oo. la. la. My favorite musical thus far. I've only seen 3 musicals in my entire life. -_- haha!
A truly incredibly show which features deaf and hearing actors alongside each other. The combination of the two 'voices', the emotion of the story, the breathtaking and inspiring choreography and the rock and roll soundtrack just work so well together. My friend and I were crying one moment and laughing out loud the next. The new dynamic adds another level to the show making it a must see. Get tickets now before it closes at the end of the month. Hopefully a sign of a new Broadway scene emerging.
I think this version brought another layer to the message the show is trying to convey-communication is just so, so important. I love the original, but this version and the sign language incorporated into the choreography was just so beautiful, and it really helped me understand the show and the characters even more. I also loved the relationship between the deaf characters and their singing counterparts, it was almost like they represented the deaf characters' subconscious, and what they want but are unable to express. I thought it was a gorgeous show, all the staging errors aside. To see sign language on a Broadway theater is a truly beautiful thing.
After seeing the show with Lea Michele in the cast, I was curious to see how this iteration would stand up. It was amazing to see the show featuring deaf actors using sign language—I'd never even thought about how underserved this community is when it comes to the theatre!!!! The signing can be a bit distracting for those who haven't seen the show before. But, it's interesting to see how they incorporated signing and writing word into the show. I'd suggest this for someone who has seen the regular show or (obviously) any hearing-impared theatre lover. Spring Awakening first-timers—see the original.