When the first Broadway production of Spring Awakening debuted in 2006, Tony voters awarded the show eight trophies including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Director. Still, EW’s critic and others at the time felt the show lacked a certain emotional depth. Fortunately that’s not the case with the first Broadway revival hailing from Deaf West, the theater company that uses deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors singing and signing.
In the hands of director Michael Arden — an actor who made his Broadway debut in Deaf West’s 2003 production of Big River — all of the awesomeness of the original Awakening is amped up. For those who found the original production goofy or even alienating, the company’s introduction of American Sign Language grants the show more heft and sincerity, and in turn a new level of intimacy. Rather than take you out of the material, choreographer Spencer Liff uses ASL as a way to amazingly imbue Duncan Sheik’s songs with even more passion and conviction. Forced to examine the show and its songs, language, and rhythm, the audience bears witness not only to the choices that the actors make, but also those from its composer and book writer. The musical, based on the once-scandalous 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, traces the lives of German teens discovering their sexual selves, often to tragic ends. And for characters experiencing a wealth of emotions but not necessarily the best ways to communicate them, it’s as if ASL gives them both another means of expression and an additional outlet for all the adolescent “feels” coursing through the show.
Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and Emmy winner Camryn Manheim both do commendable work as Awakening’s adult voices, but it’s truly the kids’ show, and while there’s no denying that Austin P. McKenzie’s Melchior (a role originated by Looking and Hamilton star Jonathan Groff) delivers the goods, it’s deaf actor Daniel N. Durant’s Moritz and his voice actor, Alex Boniello, who truly grip you for the entirety of the show. Smash star Andy Mientus’ turn as Hanschen is particularly delicious — the hearing actor both sings and signs his role, as does Krysta Rodriguez as the wandering Ilse — and also of note: the production features the first person in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage, Ali Stroker (a runner-up on The Glee Project) as feisty Anna.
It’s been twelve years since Deaf West mounted a Broadway production—let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long for another. Same goes for the immensely talented first time director Arden, who saw the amazing potential of Duncan Sheik’s gorgeous music and knew just what to do to wake up Broadway with it once again. Hopefully there is far more to come from this pairing. A–