Sunday, November 08, 2015

SPRING AWAKENING—a brilliant, compelling, creative revival on Broadway

The late eighteen-hundreds were dark years in Europe.  The times were noted for oppression, strong church controls, guilt, and sexual repression. 

Since the arts represent the era from which they come, Frank Wedekind’s SPRING AWAKENING is a mirror to reflect those dark times. 

Started in late 1890, and completed early 1891, the script did not get staged until 1906 due to German censorship regulations.   Subtitled A CHILDREN’S TRAGEDY, the play exposed the attitudes of the time by delving into homosexuality, rape, child abuse, suicide, abortion and erotic fantasies through vivid dramatization.  German productions of the play were protested, shut down, and banned.

The script was made into a silent film in 1929. 

On December 10, 2006, after a series of concerts, workshops and an off-Broadway production, the musical opened on Broadway. Containing alternative rock music infused with folk sounds composed by Duncan Sheik and with a book and lyrics by Steven Sater, the show, which starred  Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele and Skylar Astin, won 8 Tony Awards and 4 Drama Desk Awards.  The cast album received a Grammy Award.

The revival, a compelling re-imagining of the play, is directed by Michael Arden and choreographed by Spence Liff, and was originally produced by Deaf West Theatre.

Founded in 1991, Deaf West Theatre, located in North Hollywood, was the first professional resident sign-language theatre in the western part of the US.  Intended to serve the over one-million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in the LA area, it produces adaptations of classic, contemporary and original works.  The shows are presented in a marriage of American Sign Language with simultaneous English translation.  A speaking actor speaks and signs ASL, a deaf performer signs ASL and a speaking actor, usually standing behind the performer, provides their “voice.”

SPRING AWAKENING takes place in 1891and concerns a group of German teens who are becoming sexually aware and are fighting for independence from their parents and the repressive rules of their elders, including their teachers and the clergy.

The story centers on Wendla, Melchoir, and Moritz.  Wendla craves to learn more about herself.  She asks her mother to explain where babies come from, but her mother, as do the other mothers, fails to give the needed information.  In an era before sex education in the schools, the teens are left with little factual reproductive information.

Wendla and Melchoir fall in love and have an affair.

Moritz Stiefel, whose father insists on more learning than the boy can intellectually comprehend, gets in trouble at school, is defended by Melchoir, the smartest and most popular boy, who sees the weakness of the educational system and wants to change things.   He also explains to Moritz, in a written document, the physical aspects of the human anatomy and the sexual act.

Several of the girls report physical and sexual abuse on the part of their parents, while some boys act out acts of masturbation and reveal lively fantasies about sexual intimacy.

The repression, the secrecy, and the hypocrisy become apparent when, after being expelled, Moritz ends his life.  Wendla becomes pregnant and is taken to a fake abortion doctor with tragic results.  Melchoir is jailed for pandering obscenity.

The story is strong.  The story-advancing music includes such modern classics as “The Bitch of Living,” ”The Dark I Know Well,” “Don’t Do Sadness,” “Left Behind,” “Those You’ve Known,” and “The Song of Purple Summer.”

The mostly young cast is compelling in their portrayals.  Austin P. McKenzie, who is making his Broadway and theatrical debut, creates a Melchior who is sensitive, aware and determined.  He puts on the character and wears him with consistency and fine texturing.  His vocally led “Totally Fucked” was a show-stopping explosion of dance and song.

Daniel N. Durant, also making his Broadway debut, operating under the motto, “Striving to build bridges and spread the message that Deaf can!,” skillfully portrays Moritz, a young man overwhelmed by pressures from his father and the false expectations of his teachers.  His suicide scene is emotionally devastating.

Another Great White Way newcomer, Sandra Mae Frank, clearly establishes Wendla as a young lady intent on learning about the ways of life, but frustrated by her mother and teachers, who discourage curiosity and realistic learning.  Her “voice” is supplied by Katie Boeck. Their “Mama Who Bore Me” was beautifully conceived. 

Other strong performances are given by 2005 Beachwood High School grad, Alex Wyse as Georg and Andy Mientus (Hanschen) who recently appeared in LES MISÉRABLES and had a major role in TV’s “Smash.”  Camryn Manheim was at her nasty best as a vindictive teacher.  (At the performance I saw, Marlee Matlin did not perform.)

Dane Laffrey’s scenic and costume designs, Ben Stanton’s lighting design, Gareth Owen’s sound design and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections, all added to the overall effect.

Capsule judgment:  In its original Broadway production SPRING AWAKENING was a smash hit.  In its re-imagined production, the marriage of spoken/sung sounds and American Sign Language added to the overall captivating effect of a story of oppression and misunderstanding, not only of youth, but of the deaf world.  The production should be a clear candidate for a Tony Best Musical Revival!

SPRING AWAKENING is in a limited run through January 24, 2016 @ THE BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE, 256 West 47th Street, New York