The Wonder of Deaf West' Spring Awakening

Flashback to March 2007…I was in my bleacher-esque seat on stage-left at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Lea Michele’s partial sideboob and Jonathan Groff’s bare-ass had already made their appearances and they just sang the fuck out of “The Guilty Ones”…but then, some dude named John Gallagher Jr. yelled out a series of “ENOUGHs” and started singing about butterflies before repositioning a mic stand.

A magical, life-changing moment occurred seconds later…Mr. Gallagher Jr. yelled, “CUZ YOU KNOW…” and…and…and...HOLY FUCK, THE DRUMS AND THE CYMBALS AND THE MULTI-COLORED LIGHTS AND JOHN’S FLAWLESS AND ELECTRIC PERFORMING STYLE…AND…AND…AND...

ALL. THE. FEELS. John took me to church before we actually used that phrase to describe feelsing all over the place. Top, unforgettable moment of theatre of forever? Oh yeah.

At my night out seeing Deaf West’ Spring Awakening - up and running at the Brooks Atkinson Theater - I was a little bit more excited/anxious to see “Don’t Do Sadness” more then any other number in the show (which, for the record, I like/love nearly all of them). But while I was in my seat and Wendla (or, "the Wendlas” rather) started in on “Mama Who Bore Me,” I couldn’t be bothered to think ahead even five minutes, let alone the second act. Why is that, you ask…?

Because visual, emotional and musical brilliance happens on that stage from the very first second…actually, before the first second (some of the cast take the stage in foundation garments and proceed to get dressed in costume, think Twelfth Night/Richard III in repertory from two years ago). I was so caught up in the “WOAH” unfolding early on - temporarily forgetting to breath often, but that’s fine because whatevs, I'm seeing what would turn out to be a show of the highest caliber - that I wanted to live and focus in the moment, mentally capture and process every nuance, and…well, fall in love with this very show as an adult, eight-and-a-half years and so much life experience/theatre-ing after the original production had captured my teenage soul.

Point blank, lovely readers…I LOVED Spring Awakening SO MUCH and I am so close to handing the routing number to my checking account over to the theatre...just go ahead and take all my money, whydontcha. Besides, who needs money when you have Spring Awakening kicking ass (again) on Broadway?! Except this go-around, I am an adult with a salary instead of living off of my parents money and allowance!

I will try to articulate my love into words. Let’s begin…

Honestly, Michael Arden should start clearing the mantle off for all the awards coming his way. Having an inspired vision is one thing, but matching it up with pitch-perfect execution is another. There is some complicated sequences and the ongoing combination of the Vocal Expression and ASL, especially the characters that have two performers collaborating on one role, and it all came together flawlessly. It is simple enough to point out that the accompanying voices to select characters - Wendla, Moritz, Martha, Ernst, Otto, Thea - are an outlet for those that don’t know how to communicate (or are prevented from doing so), but it is so much more then that.

The voices take on so many different forms on a scene-by-scene basis, you never know with 100% certainty what the context is. Are they imaginary friends? Do they have physical manifestations? Are they acknowledged by the character they share the role with and/or the other characters? Yep, right-o and correct. It is these interactions that led me to “GASPing” without fail because there is a depth of character that two people can draw out in tandem as opposed to one person. Think about it...when a character has some epiphany or an introspective moment, they are typically left to gaze off into the distance or somewhere and hope the audience can pick up on on his/her train of thought.

Not today, not here…the voices are there to provide some illumination on some internal conflict or feeling or to reenforce some cathartic emotion. For example, when Moritz is freaking out and signing about Melchior’s sex-ed essay, his voice is the one visibly losing his shit and grabbing a cigarette to calm down. When Wendla is contemplating Melchior’s advances, sexual or not, she looks to her voice for approval or rejection. In one of the wonderfully weirder turn of events, as Melchior is about to exit after denying Wendla’s request to be beaten, he acknowledges Wendla’s voice in the physical sense and it freezes him in his tracks.

Mind-blowing? Yes, so much ‘yes', there is a worldwide shortage of ‘yes'. Even though this type of direction ran the risk of being heavy-handed or literal - seriously, who wants to be told exactly what a character is thinking or feeling, especially if it is some version of the character him/herself - it subverted that concern instantly and turned out to be a masterful, engaging, unique experience with a lot of surprises. My absolute favorite, “call the medic because my feels are all over the floor” moment was when Moritz is en route to talk to his father about his educational situation. After exchanging a glance, his voice put his hand on Moritz’s shoulder as a symbol of support. Such a subtle, arrestingly beautiful moment, I could have died right there…and if we’re being candid, this was a particular welcome development because MAN, Moritz don’t catch many breaks, no?

But Michael Arden’s genius-level work doesn’t stop there. After all, he could have ‘just’ reconfigured the staging of Spring Awakening to incorporate ASL and called it a day. But I had another jaw-dropping reaction after “The Dark I Know Well” and the eagerly-anticpated “Don’t Do Sadness” numbers. For the former song, as Martha and Ilse are dueting about their harrowing fates, all the young women in the company converge around them in addition to providing the (lovely) background vocals. As far as the latter, a song Mortiz originally solo’d out to on an empty stage (until Ilse intervenes with “Blue Wind”), a lot of the company remained on the stage post-"The Guilty Ones" and made some minor contributions.

As a result, these isolated numbers and character developments for Martha, Ilse and Moritz became something a lot larger and universal. Their stories were not only relatable on an intimate scale, the addition of more characters evolved the songs into an entire generation’s plight for understanding and combat against timeless issues, like sexism and abuse against women and the marginalizing of the younger generation’s innocence and mental paradigms. Now, THAT is some POWERFUL theatre!

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s book and score managed to reach new heights, full of profound interpretations and euphoria, and I didn’t really think that was (1) possible or (2) necessary after Michael Mayer put his talented brain and hands to work all those years ago.

I can wax poetically about the brilliance of the staging and…well, the brilliance on-hand in general, but I don’t want to keep you occupied until, like, Halloween. Besides, there is a lot of fun and awesome and badassery to go around and you best believe the ladies are on hand to SLAY the reprise of "Mama Who Bore Me," while the men ROCK OUT with “The Bitch of Living" (And Ali Stroker’s cameo on the latter is EVERYTHING, never forget). “My Junk” doesn’t rest on its laurels and has a lot going on, but the song is as charming and hilarious as ever. And the surprise of all surprises, “Totally Fucked,” a good song that I never seemed to love as much as the ardent fan base for Spring Awakening, ended up being what it was always supposed to be - an exhilarating, “balls to the walls” show-stopper. My face almost melted off watching the ensemble, the band and the production design cut loose and have the time of their lives.

And for every song serving as a display of uninhibited, in-your-face emotion, there is a counter balance of subdued, but no-less stunning songs. Spring Awakening will always be a good listen in that regard given there is a song for every emotion/occasion (and karaoke session, speaking from experience). “All That’s Known,” “I Believe,” "The Guilty Ones,” “Left Behind,” “Whispering” and “Those You’ve Known” are astonishing achievements of song, direction and performance, and are quietly confident with their subtle ways. Another cast recording is imminent and I need it months ago…

There is not one performance in this cast that is less-than-great, but for what it is worth, the “teamwork" between Sandra Mae Frank and Katie Boeck and Daniel Durant and Alex Boniello blow every scene out of the water. Whether the scenes are heavy or light on dialogue, to the point where I’d compare the latter to silent film sequences (no really, subtitles are employed sparingly), Frank and Durant use their physical beings and ASL to flesh out their characters to the max. So much so, you don’t even need the spoken word a portion of the time to know where they are at. But I’m glad we have their vocal counterparts because Boeck and Boniello have KILLER singing voices and are essentially acting out their portions as a radio play. And both of them are so awesome with their voice-over work, providing depth of emotion for miles and days, you didn’t really need to have them in the mise-en-scene to validate or authenticate the characters. The combined portrayals always felt 100 million percent honest, which made every high and low their characters endure all the more palpable.

Also on hand is a stellar Austin McKenzie, who play Melchior’s calm, cool and collected qualities so effortlessly, it looked like he didn’t have to think twice about anything he did. “All That’s Known” and “Left Behind” are more amped up numbers (just an observation) as Melchior wanders all over the place and the ASL serves as choreography and another vessel of emotion, but Austin utilizes it all to great effect while demonstrating some restraint. Krysta Rodriguez was also on point, as she was unafraid to project Ilse’s more free-spirited, Bohemian-qualities and not rely on the story telling the audience the type of person Ilse is (just wait until she starts chewing the scenery in the lead-up to “Blue Wind,” attadiva!).

On the adult front, Russell Harvard, Marlee Matlin, Patrick Page and Camryn Manheim add complexity and humanity to a gaggle of adult figures that, for no reason other then it is 1890’s Germany, totally suck at life and parenting. Manheim, in particular, is a delight as Wendla’s mother, taking a frazzled, over-the-top approach to inject some comedic relief. And Matlin taps into a sense of sorrow when Mrs. Gabor has her doomed epiphany that she should have communicated better with Melchior.

It’s rare to watch a musical you have come to study, know, love, use its lyrics as AIM away messages and even have done some school presentations on (twice), find a way to surprise and impress after all this time…but that’s how much of a knockout this production of Spring Awakening truly is. And the fact that a portion of the cast is deaf and reliant on ASL is all the more a “FUCK YES” and empowering and a welcome element of diversity. So, get yourselves over to the theatre - you may run into me there! - and join in on the excitement. Now, when I listen to the original cast recording - while awaiting the arrival of this production's cast recording - I have a whole new set of memories and marker moments to associate with my night out at the theatre.

Don’t you just LOVE it when that happens?!?!

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

<3 Thank you for your detailed review!
I'm someone who won't be able to go, so this review allows me to live through your experience a little (though it'll never be enough, it's something) so I'm really grateful for that :')