Spring Awakening (Brooks Atkinson Theatre – NYC)

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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
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/

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Krampus, A Yuletide Tale (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

 
Ah, there’s nothing quite like a pagan holiday tale, one filled with a hairy, horned creature, frightened children, and kidnapping. Why, yes, it does sound German, doesn’t it? In a brilliant bit of counter programming to the countless incarnations of A Christmas Carol at this time of year, Short North Stage proudly presents Krampus, A Yuletide Tale, at The Garden Theatre, a terrifically trippy new musical based on the legend of the creature who punishes all of the children on the naughty list. The audience sits on the stage where the action takes place in this environmental production, only adding to its giddy delights.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – (left to right) William Gorgas (Bruno), JJ Parkey (Krampus), and Emma Lou Andrews (Flora)
 
Based on German folklore about the yeti-goat cloven-hooved monstrosity, Krampus, A Yuletide Tale is smartly written by the husband and wife team of Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, with the former composing a lush and tuneful score while the latter reins in directing duties. The story is about single mother Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince) struggling to make ends meet by having her children, Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas), sell her knitting in order to pay their cruel landlord, Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart), for their lodging. The kids happen upon a lost wallet and lie that they earned the money from selling their mother’s wares. It just so happens that it is the night of December 5th (not the 24th or 25th), the evening when good kids are rewarded by Saint Nicholas (Edward Carignan) and bad children are kidnapped and punished by Krampus (JJ Parkey). Of course the kids are taken from their mother and transported to a phantasmagoric place high in the mountains that is dark and evil-looking, driving their mother to accuse their landlord of being involved with their abduction and holding him hostage! While awaiting rescue, Flora and Bruno also encounter Saint Nicholas and discover the strange partnership he has with Krampus.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Edward Carignan (Saint Nicholas)
 
Edward Carignan not only adeptly plays the rather conniving Saint Nicholas as a kind of heavily accented and bossy chef (his hair is frosted and up, resembling a chef’s hat), but he is also responsible for the highly stylized and spot-on costume and set design. The action takes place on several levels on a set that honestly looks a bit treacherous, and below it is Krampus’s forest, which is only revealed when the kids are kidnapped. There is a synergy between the exaggerated sets and colors used in the costumes that only enhances the story as there is always something interesting to discover. Krampus himself is no minor achievement, sporting a horned headpiece and long blonde hair. He’s frightening at first, but JJ Parkey has a singing voice so pure and sweet (“Eternal Winter” is a standout in the score) that it is hard to fear him for long. The story is also one in which the children’s lives are never really in danger as it is said that Krampus will be returning the children to their mother eventually. Personally, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more aggressive action and peril in the story, but that would probably have pushed it beyond the family-friendly territory it stays within here.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – (left to right) JJ Parkey (Krampus), Edward Carignan (Saint Nicholas), William Gorgas (Bruno), and Emma Lou Andrews (Flora)
 
Emma Lou Andrews and William Gorgas make for a terrific pair on stage, and they have the back and forth sibling thing down pat. Stephanie Prince is affectionately true as their mother, quite touching during her solo, “I Can’t Go On,” which pushed my companion to tears. Luke Stewart as Herr Ulrich, the selfish land baron whose heart thaws during the play, turns in a real ear-opening performance as well, especially during “Someone Who Cares,” one of several songs that highlight his superior pipes. 

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Luke Stewart (Herr Ulrich) and Stephanie Prince (Anna)
 
The only real drawback to this production, which I have found to be the case with other Short North Stage productions in The Garden Theatre, is the sound. In this case the band is tremendously over amplified into the speakers that are placed just a few feet away from the performers and the audience. The vocal performances are often drowned out by the music (glorious as it is), and so the levels on their mics are raised to compensate; this results in escalating feedback until their mics are suddenly cut in volume. It happens time and time again, and it’s a testament to the actors and the material that such an invasive issue doesn’t completely wreck the show.

 

Photo: Heather Ware – (left to right) JJ Parkey (Krampus) and Edward Carignan (Saint Nicholas)
 

Krampus, A Yuletide Tale is unlike anything I’ve seen before yet feels strangely warm and comforting. Being seated around the periphery of all of the action really adds to the experience, and this is one show that takes some twists and turns that I truly didn’t expect. There are some technical issues to sort out and perhaps the book could benefit from a polish, but what works in this show works so well that I defy anyone to see it and not be fully engaged throughout its seventy-five minute running time. Put me down for the cast recording!

*** 1/2 out of ****

Krampus, A Yuletide Tale continues through to December 20th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/509