Sign Language and Song Intertwine in Deaf West's ‘Spring Awakening'

"Spring Awakening"—with a cast of new faces, plus an Oscar winner and an Emmy winner in supporting roles—has been revived and radically reimagined, nearly a decade after first blossoming on Broadway.

Michael Arden, who starred in Paper Mill’s recent “Hunchback,” directs the Deaf West Theatre production, which has transferred to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a limited engagement on the heels of a Los Angeles staging.

Deaf West was last represented on Broadway with “Big River,” in 2003. A major thrill of the company’s endearing new “Spring Awakening” is that key roles are played by deaf actors employing American Sign Language—their speech and singing is done by other actors, mostly trailing in the shadows.

At the same time, hearing actors in other roles speak their lines and, at the same time, deliver them in ASL.

“Spring Awakening” debuted at The Atlantic in 2006, then made a swift transfer to Broadway. That cast included future stars Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff.

Centering around a group of adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, the musical counts as its unlikely source material an 1891 expressionist play by Frank Wedekind.

Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik took that severe narrative and juxtaposed with it an anachronistic score, with edgy compositions (“The Bitch of Living,” and “Don't Do Sadness”) that make for rousing counterpoints to haunting melodies (“The Song of Purple Summer”).

Of the trio at the musical’s core, only the winning Austin McKenzie, as Melchior, is a hearing actor. A rebellious golden boy, Melchior lures Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank) out of her shell, and at the same time schools Moritz (Daniel Durant) in the graphic components of coupling.

Frank makes for a magnetic Wendla, not in the least thanks to the vibrance and intensity of her signing. Most of her dialogue is voiced by Katie Boeck, who follows her just off the spotlight. (It occurred to me that Boeck and Michele have similar-sounding voices, and I wondered whether others felt that way, too.)

Durant, as the beleaguered Moritz, is more of a brooder than John Gallagher was in the original cast. Moritz has done well enough in school to be promoted to the next grade, but he’s thwarted by manipulative adults and, later, confronted by his shamed father (Russell Harvard) in a powerful scene that’s presented almost entirely without spoken words.

Adding ASL to the mix emphasizes the physicality of the scenes. For example, the pointed hand gestures of sign language underscore the longing one performer has for his big-bosomed piano teacher—a theatergoer doesn't need to know ASL to appreciate the actor's gestures when he signs: “I mean, God, please just let those apples fall.”

As well, having actors with doubles allows the deaf performers to interact with their “other” selves. You have to appreciate it when Moritz, overwhelmed with new-found sexual knowledge, hands off a burning cigarette to his alter ego (Alex Boniello, doing great work).

The adult characters of “Spring Awakening” are one-dimensional, but their shoes are filled by pros. It’s especially a treat to see Camryn Manheim working alongside Marlee Matlin, in their Broadway debuts. (Manheim is pictured below, with Frank in the foreground and Boeck in back.)

Manheim’s ASL skills have been seen on screens large and small (notably, in TV’s “The Practice”) for years. She appears as several forceful characters here, among them Wendla's suffocating mother, and signs with as much emotion as she delivers her lines. Manheim also works in the shadows, speaking for Academy Award-winner Matlin, who I wish was utilized more.

“Smash” vets Krysta Rodriguez and Andy Mientus are stand-outs—Rodriguez as Ilse, who wants to save Moritz, and Mientus (Arden’s fiance) as Hanschen, the smooth seducer who would rather “bide his time” and let the system take him where he needs to be.

The lithe choreography in the Deaf West staging is by Spencer Liff, of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Theatergoers coming to this raw story for the first time will find a musical with even more layers than the production that first seduced Broadway. The addition of sign language encourages a closer look at “Spring Awakening.”

“Spring Awakening,” through Jan. 24, 2016 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Tickets: $49-$139. Call 800-745-3000.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

Contact Us