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NY Theater Reviews

Daniel N. Durant, Austin P. McKenzie and Alex Boniello/ Ph: Joan Marcus

ADOLESCENT ALIENATION

By BILL STEVENSON

This stunning production features a number of deaf performers, with hearing actors providing their singing voices.

A critical and popular hit in Los Angeles, Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening has been eagerly awaited by fans of the rock musical. If anything, this gorgeous production exceeds expectations. Beautifully directed by Michael Arden and featuring inventive choreography by Spencer Liff, it’s a visual, musical and emotional stunner.
 
The production features a number of deaf performers, with hearing actors providing their singing voices. Other hearing actors play some roles. Camryn Manheim, for instance, plays three of the adult roles and also signs expertly. Arden has directed so skillfully that it’s easy to forget that another actor is singing for a deaf actor who is performing and signing. Having deaf students and hearing adults underscores the adolescent alienation that’s at the musical’s heart. When Patrick Page’s harsh Latin teacher scolds and punishes the dreamy Moritz (Daniel N. Durant), it’s especially unsettling.
 
In this innovative and striking production, the adults and students are really in different worlds, and the lack of communication resonates. The poor parenting, lack of education about sex and suffering of teenagers who don’t do exactly what adults expect are all conveyed more clearly than ever. Franz Wedekind, author of the controversial 1891 play Spring Awakening (which was banned in Germany and the United States for years), would be amazed at how this innovative 21st-century staging artfully expresses the themes he dared to write about it the late 19th century.
 
Duncan Sheik’s score is as raucous and lovely as ever. Steven Sater wrote the book and lyrics. The signing helps get across the tragic story even if one doesn’t know sign language. Many of the hard-working actors double as musicians and do a terrific job. The whole 28-member cast is wonderful. Standouts include Alex Boniello, who provides the voice of Moritz and plays guitar; Katie Boeck, who sings for Wendla and plays guitar and piano; and Austin P. McKenzie, who plays the hero Melchior.
 
Arden and Liff’s staging is dynamic, using stairs, raised platforms and other elements. The actors are always on the move, and many songs are presented quite differently than they were in the much-loved original production (which ran from 2006 to 2009). Highlights include the funny, energetic “My Junk” and the mini rock concert “Totally F---ed.” The lyrical, haunting “Touch Me” looks as gorgeous as it sounds thanks to Ben Stanton’s lighting.
 
West’s last Broadway production was the 2003 musical Big River, which became a crowd-pleaser. Arden played Tom Sawyer. With its depiction of teen sexuality, Spring Awakening isn’t suited to families with children. But any adult with a pulse should be captivated by this beautifully realized production.