Spring Awakening

Music by Duncan Sheik, Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York

Def West Theatre has effectively created a new Broadway genre with this ground-breaking revival of the popular rock musical about Germanic repression of youth c.1890.

By integrating deaf performers with those who can hear, director Michael Arden has achieved something special. The reason for the show’s success lies in his unwillingness to compromise. Instead of a sop to those with hearing issues, Arden has invented a form that incorporates ASL (American Sign Language) and the challenges of his actors into the 2½-hour performance to magnificent effect.

Since Spring Awakening has played regularly on both sides of the Atlantic, many readers will be familiar with a plot that sensationalised German audiences when it was written as the liberal fin de siècle values looked to push boundaries but not this far.

Even today, what should be a tender love story is shocking, for both its depiction of under-age sex and the tragic consequences of ignorance.

The central figures are budding anarchist Melchior, played with gusto and a great voice (exemplified by “Left Behind”) by Austin P McKenzie and Wendla, a shy innocent portrayed by Sandra Mae Frank with vocal/guitar skills added by Katie Boeck.

This division of labour is replicated across approximately half of the roles. In particular, Melchior’s hard-working but none too bright friend Moritz gets the treatment effectively from Daniel N Durant and the rock voice/guitar of Alex Boniello.

The teenagers face a strict regime at school and repression at home, where matters such as procreation are regarded as too embarrassing to mention, especially by Camryn Manheim as Wendla’s Mother.

Even more advanced parents such as Marlee Matlin and Patrick Page playing those of Melchior draw the line way too early in their attempts to protect children from the world’s wickedness.

To compound the problem for censors, Frank Wedekind chose to explore other tricky issues such as parental abuse, homosexuality and masturbation on stage in a full and frank fashion.

What sounds like a grim evening is turned into a joy by the songs of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, energetically choreographed by Spencer Liff.

These can be amusingly combative like “Totally Fucked”, which inevitably brought the house down, or poignant such as the closing number “The Song of Purple Summer”, made so much more moving by a lovely design concept courtesy of Dane Laffrey.

Where this production scores is in making a virtue of the flighty hand movements of ASL, the doubling of roles and in extremis the limited but vocal ranges of some performers.

This is theatre at its most life-enhancing and should not be missed.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher