Deaf West’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening offers a dynamic interpretation of the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical. The show has been re-contextualized with a mixed deaf and hearing cast and the revival opts for a less brusque storytelling style than the original Broadway production; fans will likely embrace it, because it’s well-acted and choreographed even if it still cannot solve all the dramaturgical problems inherent with the underlying material – Spring Awakening’s naysayers may well still find the metaphors employed by he musical strained.
In this production, as in other Deaf West productions, director Michael Arden has doubled the cast so there are actors who perform the roles using American sign-language (ASL) and performers who speak the lines and sing the songs, often in tandem with the signing actors.
An anachronistic rock and roll musical is set in 19th century Germany, Spring Awakening tells the story of fifteen year-old Melchior (Austin P. McKenzie), the class radical, a reader of Goethe and an avowed atheist who has made a study (from books) of the mechanics of sex. He is bursting with knowledge and has a burgeoning need to feel something. His friend Moritz (Daniel N. Durant, voiced by Alex Boniello) is falling behind in school and does not understand the sexual dreams with which he’s been plagued. Melchior does his best to help explain to Moritz what no adult will tell any of them. Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank, voiced by Katie Boeck) struggles in a similar fashion as she begs her mother (Camryn Manheim) to explain to her where babies come from. As she is “blossoming” into womanhood she too wants to feel things. Wendla and Melchior eventually find their way to each other and book learning is abandoned for some on-the-job training in a hayloft. The adults (performed and voiced by Manheim and Patrick Page and performed and signed by Marlee Matlin and Russell Harvard) are presented as a product of their time. They relent to community pressure and the shame that keeps everyone in place. The community demands punishment for all transgressions which leads to an inevitable engine of destruction for these young people.
Even today where teens still kill themselves because of parental rejection and find themselves giving birth when they didn’t even know they were pregnant, when there are mind-boggling efforts to force “abstinence only” sex education into schools, the 19th century conformist framework of Spring Awakening still feels forced. This production adds into the text instances of how deaf teens are mistreated—shouted at and mocked by their teacher or forced to speak and not sign. But no matter how hard this production tries it doesn’t do enough to truly make the German cultural framework of the musical synchronous with American adolescence. The musical’s greatest strength remains its peppy, addictive score.
Although this production cannot solve all the problems of the source material, it does manage to smooth over some major textual bumps through its dual-language approach. Through the lacing of ASL into the choreography and fabric of the performances, some of the worst musical theater lyrics begin to look poetic as they are translated into elegant or expressive gestures.
But what is most exciting here is the way in which Arden’s directorial choices disrupt the traditional hearing-world narrative. At times Arden prioritizes ASL as the primary mode of communication and deemphasizes voice in precise and moving instances to punctuate the dramatic tension—Moritz’s father’s condemnation of Moritz feels doubly harsh when delivered by Russell Harvard through sign while the words are silently projected on the walls, writ large, for the audience to read. Silence in musicals is so rare. But here silence takes on additional meaning for a majority hearing audience who will experience the scene differently and with a wholly different context than say the silence used in Fun Home.
Arden also makes astute choices as to when and how the doubled characters interact with each other. Having two performers playing one character can at times offer an amplification of that character’s inner life and struggle. Alex Boniello, dressed like a young Billie Joe Armstrong with a mound of rock and roll hair, seems to reflect Moritz’s rebellious inner-self which we do not always get to see. Boniello and Daniel Durant play off of one another at key moments and then in a particularly heightened interaction Boniello is banished by Durant, something which speaks to a profound change in Moritz’s character, expressed externally.
Of the three teen leads, Melchior’s role is the only one not bifurcated. McKenzie sings, speaks, and signs throughout. This allows us to see Melchior as the communicator and uniter that he is within the text. In addition, this allows him to become the outlier and rebel in the community—someone with superior knowledge and an openness to progressive ideals.
Austin P. McKenzie’s baby face and earnest portrayal of Melchior creates a gentle invitation into this world and doubles down on the innocence of Melchior’s relentless pursuit of knowledge. It makes his sexual advances to Wendla also feel less predatory or pushy (This new production makes material that is heavily invested in the male gaze feel slightly less oppressive at times but this perception does not actually change that baked-in perspective in the text. It just makes the medicine go down a little easier.).
Sandra Mae Frank exudes charm and inquisitiveness as Wendla. Her pleading cries to her mother asking why the mother failed to tell her “everything” about sex is particularly moving. The cast is terrific across the board and one hopes that many of these performers making their Broadway debuts in this show get more New York stage opportunities in the future. Whether Broadway makes space for talented disabled artists remains to be seen. But this production proves there’s artistic and cultural value in this underrepresented perspective.