After celebrated runs in Los Angeles, Deaf West’s transfixing revival of Spring Awakening arrives on Broadway with its fresh energy, hormonal heebie-jeebies and furious poignancy intact. Reconceived by director Michael Arden along the same lines as this company’s boundaries-bursting 2003 revival of Big River, this intoxicating production kicks the power of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s propulsive musical into a higher sphere altogether. And yet it seems truer in spirit than even the original 2006 production to Frank Wedekind’s daring, scandal-making play about teens on the verge of a sexual breakdown.
With a cast that includes deaf actors, some in roles that are doubled by hearing actors and most employing American Sign Language to sheer balletic effect, the production heightens the adolescent poles of isolation and community, longing and rejection, to a palpable poignancy. The show has been spiked for Broadway with some star-fire from the casting of Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (Children Of A Lesser God), Patrick Page (Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark), Camryn Manheim (The Practice) and Krysta Rodriguez (Smash). But it’s the kids who matter, and they’re sensational — especially in the roles that made stars of original cast members Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele.
Those characters are Wendla and Melchior, kids growing up with their friends in a German backwater at the end of the 1800s. Her body urging her into womanhood, Wendla begs her abashed mother, in the show’s opening song, to tell her the truth about the birds and the bees. The withheld information will have predictable, if no less compelling, consequences as trusting Wendla is courted by the more knowledgable and certainly more persuasive Melchior in a scene that was scandalous in 1891 and remains discomfitingly ambiguous today.
Three actors play the two roles: Austin P. McKenzie, soon to be seen in the film adaptation of Speech & Debate, signs and speaks Melchior with earnest and sympathetic bravado. Sandra Mae Frank perfectly embodies Wendla’s longing for knowledge that, if she can’t get from her mother, she will understand through experience. Frank, small and dark-haired, is given voice and rock-guitar accompaniment by tall, blonde Katie Boeck, and they are a dazzling duo, though in arguably the show’s most powerful moment, Frank is allowed her own voice, to devastating effect.
The casting of the other kids is similarly on the money, from Daniel N. Durant and Alex Boniello playing and voicing beleagured Moritz and Joshua Castille as sexually ambivalent Ernst, as these young people struggle with everything life can thrown at them: sexual and physical abuse, cruel, deceptive teachers, over-demanding parents and the tyranny of bourgeoise self-importance that is the watermark of such environs. Especially terrific is Rodriguez, recently seen on Broadway in a not-so-good musical, First Date; she was splendid then and even better here as Ilse, the too-young-to-have-seen-it-all cynic of the crowd.
The grown-ups are drawn and played as cardboard villains, and so Page, Matlin and Manheim are mostly wasted in the one misstep in Michael Arden’s otherwise flawless production. Dane Laffrey’s elemental set gives the show room to breathe (Laffrey’s costumes are equally and restrainedly suggestive) — a good thing given Spencer Liff’s modest but lush waves of movement and dancing. Ben Stanton proves himself again a master of psychologically attuned lighting, accentuating moodiness without going so dark as to give us a show in shadows. No, the only shadow cast here is of great musical-theater making. The lighting may be dappled but Spring Awakening is brilliant.