Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Deaf West Theatre's production of SPRING AWAKENING

     What do the young people who packed the Brooks Atkinson Theatre last night make of this musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's turn-of-the-twentieth-century classic, SPRING AWAKENING? Duncan Sheik's score is good pop-rock, Stephen Sater's alternation of Wedekind's text with very contemporary lyrics is effective, the young cast fabulous. But Wedekind's play is a tale of the high price of sexual ignorance and repression of adolescents. The society it shows is one in which the wages of sex can be death. I remember when guys who "knocked up" girls had to marry them. The alternative was a dangerous, illegal abortion. Homosexuality was taboo. And even sixty years after Wedekind wrote his play, sex education was a joke. The attitudes of the grown ups in SPRING AWAKENING weren't much different from the attitudes of adults when I grew up. Things are very different now for most urban Americans. My church offers sex education to first and second graders! Yes, teen suicide is still a reality and some kids feel they must run away to survive emotionally or physically, but the young people around me last night seemed to be happy campers. What the young people respond to is a show about young people performed by an immensely talented young cast with a solid score. The story must look a bit quaint to them.  SPRING AWAKENING bombed in London (as did RENT). It wasn't cynical enough for British audiences.
     Michael Arden's production for Deaf West Theater mixes deaf and non-deaf performers. Some leading performers sign while other performers speak their lines. What makes the production so special is how masterfully Arden has made this concept work and how brilliantly he and his choreographer Spencer Liff have staged this ensemble work. On a multi-level unit set adorned occasionally with projections, Arden and Liff have created a highly inventive, visually beautiful, emotionally powerful production. For the most part, the performers are the scenery. When there is need of a giant tree, ten performers group together to create the tree. The graveyard is created by performers sitting on chairs (echoes of OUR TOWN). The company functions visually as a kind of Greek chorus observing and visually reacting to intimate moments. The energy on stage was electric.
Where Michael Mayer's original production had the cast performing the musical numbers as if they were contemporary comments on a period piece, Arden and Liff have integrated the numbers more into the show. There was a hip, knowing quality about the original production where here one really felt the anguish of the characters.
     This was an ensemble production. Everyone was immensely talented and totally committed to their roles.
      My one reservation was with the tinny sound design. For some reason, lyrics did not come through very effectively.
       This is a must see production. Up to now it hasn't been doing very well at the box office. I was glad to see the theatre packer last night. Bravos to all.

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