NEW YORK — Their hands fluttering up to form what look like little arches, the cast members of Deaf West Theatre’s “Spring Awakening” offer an initial glimpse of how American Sign Language adds an extra, touching dimension to the poetry of this fervent 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. It’s the opening song, “Mama Who Bore Me,” that the ensemble of deaf and hearing actors is performing and the sign for heaven that the group is evoking, for the lyric “No sleep in heaven, or Bethlehem.”
The unison execution underlines the teenagers’ solidarity in this rock-musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 cautionary play, about the ignorance in which fearful parents sometimes keep their children, in ways that can lead to tragedy. And indeed, the narrative achieves through signing an added measure of poignancy, especially in the musical’s tender ballads of sexual discovery, such as “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body.”
This moving Broadway revival, then, seals a pact with an audience in a gentler manner than the more scaldingly assertive original production, which won eight Tony Awards, including best musical. This divergent effect has largely to do with the casting, particularly that of the new version’s leading men: Austin P. McKenzie as the carnally curious hero, Melchior, and Daniel N. Durant playing his tormented friend, Moritz.
They’re softer interpretations of the roles pioneered respectively by Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr. (Lea Michele was the original Wendla, Melchior’s love interest.) And with supporting actors such as Camryn Manheim and Patrick Page delivering more vocally assaultive turns this time as the oppressive adults in the story, the musical’s dynamic has shifted: the teens in director Michael Arden’s revival seem less defiant than embattled. It’s a sadder, less caustically combative world of teenage confusion and anxiety that is conjured in 2015 on the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the show had its official opening Sunday night.
That “Spring Awakening” adapts so easily to this new context is a testament to the suppleness of Sheik and Sater’s work (although not that much time has elapsed since the piece was first unveiled by off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company in the summer of 2006). In fact, the additional theatrical elements introduced by Deaf West–best known up to now for its revival of the Huck Finn musical “Big River” more than a decade ago–are so well-knitted into the evening that the mix of signing and singing feels completely in keeping with the show’s spirit. Because as Sheik and Sater conceived it, “Spring Awakening” was itself an ingenious hybrid. The story conjoins 19th and 21st Century attitudes and forms, in service of revealing that unbending rules, especially regarding sex, pose wrenching dilemmas for young people in any era.
Signing has been integrated here so deftly that you’re compelled to feel the language’s fluidity has a natural place in musical theater. It’s an example of the extreme care that’s been taken to make “Spring Awakening” a completely shared experience between deaf and hearing cultures.
McKenzie, a hearing actor, for instance, sings all of his own numbers. Durant and the splendid Sandra Mae Frank, who plays Wendla–a Juliet to Melchior’s Romeo–are both deaf, and as a result each is shadowed by a guitar-strumming singing partner: the excellent Alex Boniello and Katie Boeck. (The voices, accompanied by a small onstage band, are uniformly fine.) Occasionally, the actors and their shadows exchange glances or inaudible confidences, enlarging the illusion of characters’ interior lives. Meanwhile, the musical’s focus on means of communication–through the clever ways it mixes signing, surtitles and spoken dialogue–reinforces a theme of the evening, concerning what can go wrong in the absence of communication, particularly between parent and child.
Marlee Matlin (an Oscar winner for “Children of a Lesser God”) has the rather minor role here of Melchior’s mother, so her presence is not felt strongly enough. And though one misses in McKenzie’s choir-boy countenance some of the irascible self-possession of Groff’s performance, the show’s depiction of teenagers with a need to unyoke themselves from adult control remains vibrantly intact. It’s most apparent in a series of explosive production numbers, buoyantly staged by choreographer Spencer Liff. The rock-infused energy lifts up the entire enterprise. Cue the sign again, for heaven.
Book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Michael Arden. Choreography, Spencer Liff; sets and costumes, Dane Laffrey; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Gareth Owen; projections, Lucy Mackinnon. With Krysta Rodriguez, Andy Mientus, Joshua Castille, Russell Harvard. About 2 1/2 hours. $87-$249. At Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., New York. Visit ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.