Everything old, at some point, is new again. Take for example Spring Awakening, which premiered on Broadway in 2006 and made a big splash; it’s a musical adaptation of a 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind about repressed teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality (among other things), with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Even though the original play was set more than a hundred years ago in Germany, the journey about the loss of innocence that occurs when growing into young adulthood is universal and still very much relevant; sex, abortion, homosexuality, suicide, depression – these issues have not gone away and never will. The score is full of punkish-sounding songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F***ed,” while also containing soulful, moody pieces like “The World of Your Body,” “Touch Me,” and “I Believe.” It’s rock inspiration can be traced to Rent as it has a similar type of sound while also standing out as being wholly original.
Spring Awakening ran for over two years on Broadway, won eight Tony Awards, toured, and then became a popular title licensed to non-professional groups. And now, less than seven years since it closed, it is back on Broadway produced by Deaf West Theatre and directed by Michael Arden incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) as well as deaf actors to tell this story in an entirely new way in a format accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.
I was skeptical when I heard that Spring Awakening was coming to Broadway as I didn’t feel that the initial production had been gone long enough for us to miss it; I have seen two local productions in my area alone over the past year, so the material was very familiar to me. However, I vividly remember the Deaf West revival of Big River from 2003, so I conceded that perhaps there was a different approach that could be taken with the material. Several friends told me that they preferred this production over the original; while I wouldn’t go that far, I still enjoyed this revival and found many aspects of it worth recommending.
Standouts in the cast are Austin P. McKenzie playing Melchior, the bright student who has all the answers about sex, the details that the adults want to keep hidden; Sandra Mae Frank is Wendla, the naive girl who succumbs to Melchior’s charms; and Daniel N Durant is Moritz, Melchior’s friend who is suffering as a student and plagued by wet dreams. Mr. McKenzie is cute and appears too cool for school and stylish wearing the same uniform that looks drab on everyone else; his presence is magnetic, and it’s easy to see why is a leader. Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant are deaf and perform their roles using sign language with vocal and guitar accompaniment provided by actors trailing behind them in the shadows. At my performance, Lizzy Cuesta (listed as a swing in the Playbill) spoke and sang for Ms. Frank, and Alex Boniello did the same for Mr. Durant; both Ms. Cuesta and Mr. Boniello are talented performers on their own, and yet here they are proficient in underplaying their presence to remain half of a performance, supporting their deaf co-stars beautifully.
Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant have a few moments where they speak for themselves that are incredibly effective, their voices full of emotion and raw. An early scene where Mr. Durant is called on to speak and is then ridiculed in class by his professor is especially biting and effective showing the callousness of his teacher. Ms. Frank’s cries at her mother and during her intimate scene with Mr. McKenzie are similarly heartbreaking, bringing the drama of Spring Awakening to another level; their teenage angst and isolation seems like small potatoes when compared with what it must be like to be deaf.
While I’m glad that this production has sign language and occasional projected subtitles for the deaf, I had issues where I was seated in the front left of the mezzanine with visibility. There are some sequences that are only acted with sign language, and titles are presented for the dialogue; however, the projected words were often partially obscured by elements of the set, and it took me out of the play whenever the mode of communication shifted. I know that isn’t going to be a popular opinion, as I’m pleased that the deaf have a Broadway show accessible to them, but it is sometimes to the detriment of the hearing audience. For scenes with the headmaster, who doesn’t sign, the titles for his dialogue were often ahead of his delivery, a timing mishap that I hope was only at the performance I attended. I don’t recall having such issues with Deaf West’s Big River. If the entire show was open captioned with words visible from every seat (and timed properly) then the shift to sign language only wouldn’t be so jarring.
One aspect of this production that I found superior to the original is how Hänschen’s (Andy Mientus) seduction of Ernst (Joshua Castille) is handled; in the original production it was played comically for laughs, but here it is sincere. It’s interesting to note that there were some audible guffaws from the audience when the two young men kiss when I saw the original production on tour in Columbus back in 2009; the same sequence, this time played quite earnestly, elicited no such response. Is it that times have changed so much in the past six years that two men kissing onstage is more palatable, or the shift to a straightforward telling of the gay storyline, or the difference in audiences between New York and Columbus that is the reason for the different response? I think it’s a combination of all three factors, but color me pleased with the change.
I’m glad to have seen this revival of Spring Awakening, but it doesn’t surpass or even meet the merits of the original for me. It’s still good and entertaining, but some of the accessibility alterations inhibited my enjoyment of the show from where I was seated. Perhaps my experience would’ve been better had I been seated elsewhere; our tickets were not marked as being “partial view” but that is essentially what I would call them. A show enhanced for accessibility should consider the vantage point for all of the seats to ensure that pertinent and important elements are not missed. Again, I still enjoyed the show, but with that notable reservation.
*** out of ****
Spring Awakening continues through to January 24th in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre at 256 W. 47th St. (at 8th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.springawakeningthemusical.com/