The first line of the show makes even less sense now.
When Spring Awakening debuted in 2006, more than one critic noted that the show’s first lyric was at odds with the story.
For after innocent teenager Wendla sang “Mama Who Bore Me,” she moved on to a scene in which she asked her mother where babies came from. Her embarrassed mother told her “The stork,” and while Wendla didn’t believe that, she had no other ideas whatsoever about the birth process.
So why would she know enough to sing “Mama Who Bore Me?”
Now Michael Arden’s production for Deaf West Theatre has the Tony- winning musical augmented by American Sign Language. But when Sandra Mae Frank’s Wendla signs the words “bore me,” she puts her hands under her breasts and makes a gesture of a big protruding belly. If Wendla knows that babies first reside inside their mothers and thus cause their midsections to expand, she wouldn’t be as clueless in the next scene.
Speaking of clueless, this Spring Awakening may well flummox those who didn’t see the original production. In the first act, Arden goes for dynamic stage pictures, but they come at the expense of the narrative. Without prior knowledge of the piece, knowing where to look isn’t easy.
“I can’t focus,” says one character (using, not so incidentally, a phrase that came into vogue much later than 1891, when the show is set). Theatergoers may make the same complaint as their eyes dart from Arden’s pile-up of bodies here and there as they wonder where the story is.
Focus becomes less of a problem in the second act when Arden directs in a far more straightforward manner. Still, theatregoers would be well-advised to do their homework and bone up on Spring Awakening before heading to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
For those who don’t want to go to the expense of buying the published text of Steven Sater’s book and lyrics as well as the original cast album that sports Duncan Sheik’s music, they can economize by buying one book — the (superior) play on which the show is based.
Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring’s Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy was so controversial that it wasn’t produced for 15 years. Yes, when a work of art has this much to say, a great many people don’t want it said. Wedekind came down hard on parents who thought they were doing their children a favor by not teaching them the sexual facts of life. All that happens is that nature takes its course; Melchior sees a hole in Wendla’s body and has an impulse to fill it.
Allowing such an act was of course a girl’s major disgrace in the early 19th century (and, let’s face it, for much of the 20th century too). And that’s only the start of the downward spiral. Sexual repression leads to violence. Not all sex is heterosexual. Not all teenagers are able to survive adolescence.
Education comes in for some brickbats, too. “Shame is nothing but a product of education,” says one character, who has a point. Schooling means learning about quadratic equations, which is an utter waste of time for many and leads to humiliation to those who can’t master the damn things. The musical makes clear that parents expect their children to achieve academically so that they can brag about them. If the kids cannot, well, then the parents feel the kids aren’t worth knowing, let alone loving. Don’t expect teachers, who can be the cruelest of all, to take up the slack.
Hard to believe, isn’t it, that this play came into being when it did? How sad to realize that some of the issues are still patently relevant today; at least one still impacts our 21st century elections. The only profound change in parents’ attitudes between then and now is that 19th century mothers and fathers firmly believed “If you don’t discipline a child, you don’t love him”; those parents, unlike today’s, didn’t care if their children liked them.
Given that this is a story about lack of communication, it’s a natural for Deaf West Theatre. If children who can hear don’t understand how the world works, imagine how much harder a time deaf kids must have. Even watching these young deaf actors performing in a classroom setting reminds us of the extra barriers that they face on a daily basis.
The remarkable achievement of this production comes from what seems to be an overwhelming demand that Arden made of his performers. Much of the time when the deaf performers are signing, they simultaneously mouth the words that are being said or sung by the hearing actors who are standing behind them in the shadows. To say that the effect is almost like watching a dubbed foreign movie isn’t much of a compliment; after all, most film dubbing is atrocious. But here, although the deaf actors cannot hear the words, they’re precise in matching their mouths to the spoken words. It makes for a galvanizing effect, for in this era of homogenized electronic sound when identifying which person on stage is speaking isn’t easy, a theatergoer may come away not entirely certain who’s deaf and who isn’t. That may very well be part of Arden’s intention.
Arden put some of his hearing actors to a hard test, too. Although a few came to him with a pre-existing knowledge of ASL, others had to learn so that the words not projected as surtitles would be able to be understood by deaf patrons. (Happily enough, there were many at the performance I attended).
There’s one moment, however, when we have no doubt who’s speaking: Sandra Mae Frank for one pungent line uses her own unamplified voice that has the unmistakable sound of a deaf person. It’s quite powerful, especially because the line was not chosen arbitrarily.
Frank is not the only excellent performer. Austin P. McKenzie has genuine charisma as Melchior. Daniel N. Durant must well remember his own adolescent angst, for he gives it to Melchior’s best friend, the unsettled Moritz. Andy Mientus (late of Smash) and Joshua Castille play a scene that has been enacted thousands of times today and make it on-target true to life.
As for the four adults, they’re split into two deaf pairs and two hearing pairs. In the former category Oscar-winner Marlee (Children of a Lesser God) Matlin and Russell Harvard have the right gravitas. In the latter category, Patrick Page and Camryn Manheim shine as well. Page has non-stop authority and Manheim effectively makes Wendla’s mother into such a harridan that she suggests she could be our next great Medea. (Hard to believe that this Emmy-winner, who started performing off-Broadway nearly 28 years ago, is only now making her Broadway debut.)
Katie Boeck (The Voice of Wendla) and Alex Boniello (The Voice of Moritz) do nicely by Sheik’s songs, which do tend to sound alike after a while. Perhaps that’s why only “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” got wild cheers, because they’re audience-rousers; the rest are tender little ballads that often got no applause whatsoever.
The Voices do tend get terribly close to the microphones and, exacerbated by Annmarie Milazzo’s fuzzy sound, make many of the lyrics hard to understand. Given that there are about five dozen lines that don’t rhyme properly, this may be a blessing in disguise.