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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.