America would be in much better shape if every member of Congress went to see Deaf West Theatre’s thrilling revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening. The musical, which won eight Tony Awards in its initial 2006 Broadway run, deals with homosexuality, guns, teen pregnancy, child abuse, suicide, premarital sex, disabilities, masturbation, education, religion, the arts, and more. At its heart, it’s a story about the eternal generation gap, focusing on the miscommunication between adults and children, which is as critical today as it was in 1891, when German author Frank Wedekind wrote the original play on which it’s based. But this time around, director Michael Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff have made the mediocre songs and Shakespeare-does-YA story secondary to a spectacular staging that will take your breath away over and over again. Arden has paired each deaf member of the cast with a hearing actor to speak or sing their lines; both performers use sign language as well, their bodies moving in a very different, very beautiful kind of dance. Sometimes the dual performers are on opposite sides of the stage, and sometimes they follow each other around, as if linked together by an invisible chain. Lines that are not vocalized or signed are projected onto a blackboard or the back wall; cues for the deaf actors consist of physical touches from their hearing doppelganger, musical vibrations, multicolored lighting, offstage closed-captioned monitors, and the use of props, such as the opening of a letter. It all works as seamlessly as in the most heavily choreographed musical, so much so you’re likely to not even realize there’s not much actual dancing in the show, which is somewhat different from Deaf West’s previous Broadway production, 2003’s Big River.
The show takes place in 1891 Germany, a time when deaf people were discriminated against and sign language was banned in classrooms. Sandra Mae Frank stars as Wendla Bergmann, an adolescent girl who asks her mother, Frau Bergmann (Camryn Manheim), how babies are made. Frau Bergmann’s fear of telling her daughter the truth sets everything in motion, as parents and teachers battle their children and students, the lack of communication between the young and old serving as the major theme of the play. The bright and charming Melchior Gabor (Austin P. McKenzie) challenges his teacher, Herr Sonnenstich (Patrick Page), over the concept of “critical commentary on textual conjecture,” Moritz Stiefel (Daniel D. Durant) has sexual dreams he doesn’t understand, the geeky Georg (Alex Wyse) has the hots for his piano teacher, and the girls don’t want what happened to the bruised and battered Ilse (Krysta Rodriguez) to happen to Martha (Treshelle Edmond) and cause her to run away too. “When I have children, I’ll let them be free. And they’ll grow strong and tall,” Anna — portrayed by Ali Stroker, the first wheelchair-bound actor to ever play a part on Broadway, even more impressive because it’s a role that doesn’t call for it — says, to which Thea (Amelia Hensley) responds, “Free? But how will we know what to do if our parents don’t tell us?” Only Frau Gabor (Marlee Matlin), Melchior’s mother, is willing to give the kids the freedom to grow. “Surely, you boys are now of an age to decide for yourselves what is good for you and what is not,” she tells her son and Moritz. But Melchior makes their dire situation clear when leading everyone in the showstopper, “Totally Fucked,” declaring, “There’s a moment you know you’re fucked / Not an inch more room to self-destruct.”
The set is like an industrial warehouse, with several metal staircases leading to a second level where the adults often look down on the children, watching them in shame and embarrassment. The impeccable casting features Emmy winner Manheim, who studied sign language in college and used the skill on The Practice; Oscar winner Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), the grand dame of deaf actors, in her Broadway debut; and Page (Casa Valentina, Cyrano de Bergerac), whose deep, booming voice echoes throughout the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, reminding everyone of the power, and bombastic nature, of vocalized speech. As the show opens, Frank, a short brunette, looks into a glassless mirror; on the other side is Katie Boeck, a tall blonde with a guitar, who will follow Frank around for the rest of the show as they portray Wendla as a team, Boeck supplying the voice of the character while also playing music. Their relationship is a beauty to behold, as if every one of us, whether we’re deaf or hearing, has two parts that form our own whole. In a later scene, a deaf actor’s voice partner becomes more than just a talking, singing shadow, making for an unforgettable, magical moment that is what live theater is all about. Wedekind’s stories work amazingly well with music; in addition to Spring Awakening, German composer Alban Berg turned his Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, into the opera Lulu, which is being performed at the Met in November and December in a new production directed by South African multimedia artist William Kentridge. So now, how do we get Congress to see Spring Awakening?