Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review: A Rejuvenated Awakening to Believe In

Usually the rule is if it ain't broke don't fix it but Deaf West Theatre's Spring Awakening is a rule breaker. And thankfully so. Deaf West, Michael Arden, and their extraordinary team reinvented this ravishing musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater and created something truly mesmerizing.
Keying into the importance of the text with a focus on storytelling, this revival of Spring Awakening is completely transformative. Adapted from the play by Frank Wedekind, the musical chronicles the youth of 1890s Germany and their journey to sexual awakening. Melchior, a wise-beyond-his-years boy, tempts friend and classmate Moritz with the truth that the adult authority figures seem to shield them from. On a seemingly innocent afternoon, Melchior and Wendla, a curious girl, engage in sexual intercourse, something only one party truly understood. Melchior’s influence shatters both his friends' lives, leaving him to be punished by the very adults who indirectly caused it all. When Spring Awakening first came onto the theater scene, it seemed to revolutionize musical theater. This revival has not only continued the revolution, it has revitalized it. Deaf West is well known for their invigorating productions blending the deaf and hearing worlds to tell stories. This production is no different. This production is not only important, it deserves to be seen by an even wider audience.
Rather than playing safe and recreating the musical beat by beat, director Michael Arden molded it into something stunning. Elements of the script and score that seemed small in the original now become even more important. For example, "Mirror Blue Night" in the original production was merely a transition song that allowed the company to prepare the stage for the climatic Act I finale, now had a meaning and purpose. What was once a cover for the platform hoist became a finger light show that allowed the lyrics to be actually heard. And this was just one of the many moments of brilliance. By incorporating a mix of voice, American Sign Language, and projection, Arden smartly put emphasis on Sater's words. How they were presented called attention to word choice. By allowing the audience the focus on the text, a strong and captivating narrative evolved. This permitted a newfound sense of vulnerability in the characters to be exposed. By having some of the characters played by deaf actors, showcased the universality in the story. These children can truly be anyone.
photo by Kevin Parry
Many people add their two cents when it comes to the Tony Awards and what accolades should be added. While it’s no secret that the award for Best Sound design is a mandatory reinstatement, perhaps a new award should be presented after. And that’s for Best Ensemble. I think it’s safe to say the ensemble of Spring Awakening would easily walk away with it. Unity, trust, and faith all come to mind when watching this spirited cast perform. There is not a single weak link in the bunch. Much of the success of the original production was due to the bright-eyed ensemble, many of whom turned into stars. Watching this cast was like watching Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, and John Gallagher Jr. The show that catapulted young talent to stardom is about to do it again. It’s safe to say there’s a new Melchior in town. Austin P. McKenzie exploded in his gave a star-making performance. The audience believed every single word that McKenzie said. His take on Melchior was rich with fervor and grit. McKenzie has a long career ahead of him. While Melchior remained a single role, Wendla and Moritz were broken into two, one taking on the character and one providing the spoken voice. Sandra Mae Frank's honestly and purity as Wendla was greatly matched by the vocals from Katie Boeck. They had beautiful chemistry as the na├»ve girl. Boeck’s folk-rooted vocal was a fresh and inviting sound. Taking on Moritz, Daniel N. Durant as the character and Alex Boniello as the voice were simply breathtaking. Durant took Moritz on a slightly reserved journey. He kept the character internal allowing for a brilliant juxtaposition with Boniello’s rock star vocals. The company happened to feature two Spring Awakening alum in the ensemble with Andy Mientus taking on Hanschen and Krysta Rodriguez playing Ilse. While they may be veterans, they still found fresh nuances to the characters. Mientus’ Hanschen maintained his self-confidence, but it came naturally. Rodriguez brought extraordinary vulnerability to Ilse, especially in Act II. As the first performer in a wheelchair on Broadway, Ali Stroker seemed to be having the time of her life. While Anna may be one of the smaller girl parts, Stroker’s little cameo as the girl of Otto’s dreams in “The Bitch of Living” stole the show. Taking on Georg, the score fit Alex Wyse’s voice stunningly. The pureness of his vocals was music to the ears. While they may not have been the focus on stage at times, many of the voice ensemble captured hearts including Sean Grandillo and Daniel David Steward. Not only did they excel, they also showcased their musicianship. Rather than relegating a single man and woman to play the adult characters, the revival brought in a hearing and deaf counterpart for each. Taking on the various male roles, Russell Harvard and Patrick Page brought fright to the stage. Page is wonderfully terrifying with his deep bass tone. The way it reverberated struck fear. The women were divided between Camryn Manheim and Marlee Matlin, two brilliant actresses. Their maternal instincts were on par, but when Manheim served as Matlin’s voice, it was something special. But nothing is more rewarding than watching Marlee Matlin rocking out on electric guitar during “Totally Fucked”.
Arden’s direction included variety when it came to how the deaf actors and their match interacted. When it came to Wendla, Arden kept Boeck close to Frank. And it was a strong choice. And this was the case with many of the others but when it came to Moritz, Boniello was often left in the dark. Literally. Boniello’s voice was ever-present but it was a shame you didn’t see him as much. With the nature of the Deaf West production, Arden capitalized on the intimacy of silence. There were moments that scenes were performed strictly with ASL and they happened to be some of the most touching scenes. You may not have known what each sign was but you understood the dialogue. Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff allowed the sign language to become a driving force into the movement of the musical. And it was courageous and rewarding. Dane Laffrey’s scenic design was barebones yet quite intricate. And chairs happened to be a central focus. The set moved fluidly from scene to scene, utilizing an assortment of elements on wheels. With more items than in the previous production, there was a little less left to the imagination. And somehow, it paid off. Particularly when it came to the bed. The use of the bed in “Dark I Know Well” added a new fire to the song. And then there’s that final image when the children go off into the forest. It’s powerful to see. Lighting designer Ben Stanton, sound designer Gareth Owen, and projection designer Lucy MacKinnon played such integral roles in this production. One of the most striking moments of the entire production was the end of Act I. With a spectacular white-out paired with a ferocious thunderclap, new meaning was given to the moment. While it’s bound to divide opinions, it was bold. While projections are occasionally a happy extra touch, MacKinnon's projections were a masterful part of the show. Some people pay little attention to font, but MacKinnon's choices added a great layer to the atmosphere.
It’s only September and it seems that two Tony Awards are pretty much locked up in the musical category. Between Hamilton and Spring Awakening, it seems silly to open another musical this season. Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening is one that will go down in the history books. It’s quite extraordinary when you can improve upon perfection. Dare I say, it's better than the original.

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