Sunday, September 27, 2015

Style Over Substance, but a Style Worth a Second Look

Review: Spring Awakening

The vast majority of the cast of the Spring Awakening revival are making their Broadway debut, which makes their complaints about "The Bitch of a Living" a little hard to swallow.

It's been just under 9 years since the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening took Broadway by storm, and only 6 since that Tony-winning original production played its final performance, so you'd be forgiven for questioning why such a relatively new property already merits a full scale revival. But the Broadway transfer of Deaf West's visually stunning take on this angst filled musical drama quickly is so boldly reimagined it quickly justifies its existence, almost immediately banishing any thoughts of the original. Performed simultaneously in spoken English and American Sign Language, this Spring Awakening may ultimately be a case of style over substance, but it also proves there is more to this tale of teenage sexual discovery than initially meets the eye.

Based on a controversial German play of the same name from 1891, Spring Awakening explores the burgeoning passions of a group of teenagers who have little frame of reference for the numerous changes they're experiencing. Already in the midst of puberty, young Wendla has a whole host of questions about her developing body that her mother refuses to answer. The slightly older Moritz faces similar confusions about his growing sexual urges, and seeks the answers from his best friend and the school's star student Melchior. Melchior does his best to educate Moritz while also dealing with his growing attraction to Wendla, all of which must be handled largely in secret due to the extremely conservative parents and teachers who run the children's lives.

As written, the show is more of an expressionistic mood piece than a narrative driven musical; the plot is fairly straightforward and rather predictable, although given is roots as a century old morality tale that can be largely forgiven. Under the direction of Michael Arden and utilizing Deaf West's signature mixture of ASL and spoken dialogue, this production becomes even more stylized than the famously conceptual original. Several characters are portrayed by multiple actors, with one performer signing the role and the other voicing their dialogue and songs. Movement figures heavily into the piece, with Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff utilizing the inherent expressiveness of ASL to take the place of more traditional choreography. The emotional and visual impact of this approach cannot be overstated, with multiple musical numbers becoming heart-stoppingly gorgeous under the pair's artistic eye.

Furthering the show's visual panache is Ben Stanton's incredible lighting design, which is smartly married with Lucy MacKinnon's understated but impactful projections. Unlike many contemporary pieces, the projections here are rarely the scenic focus and at times barely noticeable, embellishing the already rich lighting and movement rather than replacing them. When the staging, lights, and projections are all working in perfect harmony, as they do during "The Mirror-Blue Night" and the showstopping "Totally Fucked," Spring Awakening becomes one of the most visually arresting productions of the year. Arden and his team do an exceptional job of communicating the excitement and terror of being a teenager reaching sexual maturity, and the production's greatest accomplishment is reminding the audience of this universally shared experience.

The performances are generally strong, although the relative inexperience of some cast members does prevent the show from becoming all it can be. Sandra Mae Frank is wonderfully expressive as Wendla, ably supported by Katie Boeck as the Voice of Wendla. Of all the characters played by multiple actors, Frank and Boeck are the most in sync, bringing out Wendla's youthful innocence without seeming so na├»ve she becomes difficult to root for. Daniel N. Durant and Alex Boniello aren't quite as successful as the deeply troubled Moritz (Durant signs, Boniello speaks), occasionally telegraphing the character's fate even more than the already blunt script. Austin P. McKenzie both signs and sings the role of Melchoir with an appealing earnestness, helping to ground the production as it veers into more melodramatic territory during the second act.

In supporting roles, both Andy Mientus (as the seductive Hanschen) and Krysta Rodriguez (as runaway Ilse) make strong impressions. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin makes her Broadway debut playing several of the Adult Women, a responsibility she shares with fellow screen star Camryn Manheim. Both actresses are in fine form, commanding the stage with their presence and providing multiple fully realized characters during their limited stagetime. Patrick Page is also excellent as the majority of the Adult Men, using his distinctively musical speaking voice to maximum effect as most of the play's authority figures.

Overall, there is plenty to recommend this new Spring Awakening, both to the show's diehard fans and those who might be skeptical of the piece's artistic merits. The book might not hold together quite as well as it seemed to 9 years ago, but the score is arguably even more impressive in hindsight. Combined with director Arden and choreographer Liff's pulse-pounding staging and the committed performances from the production's game cast, the show still has a lot to say about the confusion of puberty and the dangers of trying to shield children from the world's less seemly realities. The thorough integration of ASL into the show's very fiber is so well done it is difficult to imagine what the piece would be like without it, and for that reason alone this revival is both justified and worth the price of admission.

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