By Patrick Hurley
Deaf West Theatre and The Forest of Arden have reimagined and reinterpreted Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2007 Tony-Award winning musical Spring Awakening, playing now through June 7 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Under the direction of Michael Arden this beautifully staged production hits all the right notes, and even discovers a hidden depth in the material like only Deaf West Theatre can. Some of the characters are played by two actors, one performs the vocals, and the other the physical embodiment of the character. The duality, while initially jarring, is utilized in order to allow hearing impaired performers to take on large roles. But it is also used in such a poignant and powerful way, that it seems the show should have been written to be performed this way.
The musical, for those unfamiliar, is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play. The play deals with the sexual repression of teenagers by family and society, and the consequences of exploration. The musical, while still dealing with these broad ideas, incorporates rock music—complete with a live band on stage—of an elevated nature. The songs are lyrically eloquent, and deal with the abstract inner lives of the characters. The songs play with subtext rather than overloading us with dramatic action and exposition as so many modern musicals are wont to do.
The story centers on Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank; Vocals: Katie Boeck) and Melchior (Austin McKenzie). Wendla, at the start of the show wants to know how babies are conceived. Her mother (Natacha Roi) is less than forthcoming, and leaves out a few key details that foreshadows Wendla’s ignorant journey into adolescence as unprepared and prime for heartbreak. Melchior is the exact opposite. He is a rebel. He defies authority both at school and at home, and in a tragic turn of events, is challenged by the crippling morality of the adults in his life which drives him to act out in rebellion against them, taking Wendla down the dark road with him.
The success of this production, in no small way, lies in the beautiful scenic design by Dane Laffrey, who has created a Brechtian-style world of towering walkways, and set pieces that roll in and out in a hyper-theatrical fashion. Director Michael Arden goes above and beyond, and has created some wonderfully dream-like imagery that will linger in the minds of the audience long after the show ends. Mr. Arden also allows the sign language to become so much a part of the show that it begins to feel necessary. He plays with supertitles and in some instances lighting that projects shadows of the actors on the upstage wall that allows for the scene to be watched for real or completely in shadow. It was a wonderfully atmospheric quality to add to a show whose main themes are repression and shame. The text can be a bit heavy-handed and sentimental at times, but this production never succumbs to the melodrama. It allows silences to fill the space when words would weigh it down. Scenes between two deaf characters, who only sign their dialogue, play out beautifully. The moments that use this particular approach are expertly chosen, allowing us to see rather than hear a character, and this invariably strengthens the evocative nature of the piece.
The musical numbers all reveal some inner truth of the characters, and while some of the lyrics were difficult to hear—there were some sound issues—most of them are highly-charged songs of teen angst that perfectly align with the desperation of adolescence and self-discovery. None more so than “The Word of Your Body” which in both it’s first rendition and it’s reprise is a heartbreakingly honest examination of the true nature of love.
The cast is astonishing, led by the highly charismatic Austin McKenzie whose Melchior is tough and tender. He evokes at every turn, whether he is defending the sexual exploration of a fellow student, or coming to terms with his own fate in the show-stopping “Totally Fucked.” It’s a performance that has star quality written all over it. Likewise, Sandra Mae Frank as Wendla is sweet and innocent and heartbreaking. Katie Boeck, as the voice of Wendla matches the sweetness and the innocence with her touching vocals. Having her played by these two actresses was a stroke of genius. The distancing that teens feel from themselves as they make discoveries about who they are is actually manifest in scene after scene with these two women, and culminates in a staggeringly brilliant coming apart moment that is haunting.
The entire supporting cast is first-rate. Andy Mientus is spectacular as Hanschen. He exudes charm, and pulls the audience in with his magnetic sincerity. His reprise of “The Word of Your Body” is a thing of beauty. Likewise Ernst and the voice of Ernst, Joshua Castille, and Daniel David Stewart, are wonderfully endearing. Both men create a unified character separated only by internalized dissonance, and the result is theatrically wonderful. The moment when Hanschen first kisses Ernst and Mr. Stewart spins on his piano bench as if he were giddy with excitement from the moment, was perhaps the most gratifying image of the night.
In the end, this production is a wonderful reminder of the true spectacle of theater. It encompasses all the right elements for success. It’s evocative, through-provoking, and visually stunning. It’s definitely a Spring you won’t want to miss!
Directed by Michael Arden
Choreographed by Spencer Liff
Musical direction by Jared Stein
*Performed simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken English.
May 29-June 7
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for The Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Special seating will be available for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.