By Michall Jeffers
Spring Awakening is blessed with a company of actors who amaze in this Deaf West production. Some are deaf artists who employ American Sign Language (ASL); some are hearing players who speak and/or sing for their deaf cohorts; and some hearing actors also do a commendable job of signing while they speak and sing. Chief among the latter is Austin P. McKenzie, this production’s Melchior. A true leading man, McKenzie sings, signs, and acts equally well, and admirably anchors a large cast. As the woman, he alternately abuses and loves Sandra Mae Frank bringing a sweet yearning to her role as Wendla, the tragic heroine of the piece.
For anyone who thinks of ASL being only about hand gestures, the deaf actors onstage here will come as a revelation. They communicate not only with signing, but with their whole bodies. Their faces express the nuances of every emotion. After a very short amount of time, we become accustomed to the device of hearing and deaf counterparts. While much of the attention is quite naturally focused on the deaf performers, their voices are conveyed by superb singers and actors. As the voice of Wendla, guitar playing Katie Boeck brings such passion to the role, it would be fascinating to see her play the part solo. As the deeply troubled student Moritz, Daniel A. Durant (deaf) and Alex Boniello (hearing) are a strong team, bringing to light the anguish of the teen who is always being told he’s just not good enough, and never will be.
Name actors Camryn Manheim, Marlee Matlin, and Patrick Page have smaller, but pivotal roles, which they perform with the acumen we’ve come to expect. Manheim elicits both laughs and groans as Wendla’s mother, who explains the mating ritual as best she can. Matlin is beautiful and sad as Melchior’s disappointed mother. Page, with his deep growl of a voice, is the school master who mocks Moritz a bully and who is fully capable of snuffing the joy out of his students. Patrick Page is a working actor who’s underrated and who deserves a big star turn in a vehicle worthy of his talents. How about a revival of Luther?
That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is an overwrought and nihilistic play. Astonishingly, it has become a cult classic. Perhaps it’s because people identify with the combination of teenage angst and overwhelming sexual obsession. The book of the musical “Spring Awakening,” was written by Steven Sater; the score, which is used to underscore the story, is by Duncan Sheik. Originally written by 19th century German playwright Frank Wedekind, it was quickly banned. Perhaps because of this notoriety, the play is felt to have significance in our modern age.
But careful consideration belies the conjecture that teens commit desperate acts because of a repressive society. The events are not extreme enough to warrant the consequences. A mother is flustered trying to explain sex to her daughter; because of this, the girl becomes pregnant and comes to a tragic end. A boy is punished for writing a treatise on- of course- sex, and as a consequence, a suicide occurs. Romeo and Juliet illustrate teenage longing and the heartrending results so much better. In Spring Awakening, melodrama quickly takes over. Throw in some gratuitous flashes of bared breasts and rear ends, a hearty dose of sadomasochism, and simulated acts of both intercourse and masturbation, and bang, you have yourself a hit.
Director Michael Arden has done a noble job in keeping us riveted to a stage which, at times, is akin to a three-ring circus. His blending of deaf and hearing actors couldn’t be better, and he doesn’t shy away from hyping the drama and excitement that’s generated by his talented cast. This production of Spring Awakening is so much better than the play itself, another revival is totally unnecessary for, say, another century.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Spring Awakening, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 W. 47th , NYC 212-541-8457, Through Jan. 24, 2016 www.springawakeningthemusical.com
Choreographer, Spencer Liff; Scenic & costume designer, Dane Laffrey
Cast: Robert Ariza, Miles Barbee, Katie Boeck, Alex Boniello, Joshua Castille, Lizzy Cuesta, Daniel N. Durant, Treshelle Edmond, Sandra Mae Frank, Kathryn Gallagher, Sean Grandillo, Elizabeth Greene, Russell Harvard, Amelia Hensley, Van Hughes, Lauren Luiz, Camryn Manheim, Daniel Marmion, Marlee Matlin, Austin McKenzie, Andy Mientus, Patrick Page, Ren, Krysta Rodriguez, Daniel David Stewart, Ali Stroker, Alexandra Winter and Alex Wyse