REVIEW: Spring Awakening, Brooks Atkinson Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Spring Awakening at the Brroks Atkinson Theatre

Spring Awakening
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
10 October 2015
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Whatever you may think about Spring Awakening, the 2006 Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater musical, think again. Whatever you may think about the musical form, think again. Because the new Broadway production of that musical, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is a game changer in every way.

Quite simply, it is one of the most perfectly conceived, cast and executed productions of a musical on any stage anywhere in the world. It’s shocking, brutal, brilliant and beautiful, all at once; like any good date, it is sexy, funny, serious and well worth a whole hearted investment.

Spring Awakening at the Brroks Atkinson TheatreBased on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, the musical tells the tale of a group of youngsters who discover simultaneously their inner sexuality and the mores, demands and strictures of the world their parents and teachers dominate. Some rebel accidentally, some rebel deliberately, some rebel desperately, but almost all rebel one way or another.

The intransigence and ludicrous demands of the parental figures in their lives doom some of the characters. One takes his life, one has her life taken away, another loses the chance of a life he desires. But, on the other hand, one takes what he wants, others enjoy what they can, and still others do they best they can. In the end, though, the authority figures lose control and the youngsters know that an Eden of a different kind is theirs for the taking.

Obviously enough, the score represents the underlying notions of rebellion and assimilation in the way the music encapsulates folk sounds, rock music and, most assuredly uses alternative rock music as its life line. Guitars work hard and the mood they assist in creating is excellent.

Especially as some of the musicians perform as well. They give voice to some of the main characters, who are played by members of Deaf West Theatre, for this is a musical collaboration of an unprecedented kind. Director Michael Arden has combined with Deaf West Theatre, which as the programme tells us is “an organisation dedicated to bridging cultures and shifting perceptions” to create this extraordinary production where the action is played, sung and signed simultaneously. American Sign Language (ASL) Masters have worked with “each actor to ensure that the playwright’s intentions, tone, rhythm, poetry, idiomatic expressions and humorous are all reflected in each actor” signing.

The result is intoxicating.

There is the usual music and dialogue separation one finds in musicals, but here, the sign-language helps bridge that gap. The signing continues in the same way, whether it is words or lyrics being conveyed, providing a tangible coherence to proceedings. Where critical, the signing is translated via projections. This too, is clever, because the writing used is archaic in style, creating a sense that written communication is fusty and old – as an audience member, the written word becomes aligned with the dour authority figures; the signing is for the cool kids and you just want to learn it, to be able to get down with them.

The power of Sheik and Sater’s score is made tenfold by what happens in Arden’s production. The melding of voice, signing and score is brilliant, and leads to wholehearted absorption in the musical moments: The Bitch Of Living, The Mirror Blue Night, I Believe, Totally Fucked and The Songs Of Purple Summer – each blisters with unerring, irresistible, energised glory.

The signing adds immeasurably to the complexity of emotions which can be revealed. Wendla, played and signed by Sandra Mae Frank and voiced by Katie Boeck, and together they communicate the fragility, hope and loss the character experiences effortlessly: freed from the demands of supporting and projecting her voice, but totally engaged in communicating meaning, Frank’s Wendla is more complete a character than I have ever seen her be, and Boeck concentrates on ethereal and thrilling vocal beauty.

The process does not just work for the serious drama. Joshua Castille is a perfect Ernst and he is helped on this by the work of Daniel David Stewart, who voices Ernst and is a whizz on the piano as part of the orchestral landscape. At the moment of Ernst’s seduction by Hanschen (a blonde Andy Mientus), Stewart provides vocal joy to augment the tentative happiness that Castille signs and Mientus demands. It’s a genius moment of pure theatre.

Spring Awakening at the Brroks Atkinson Theatre

Unavoidably, the piece is very dark, involving as it does the tragic deaths of two characters. None of this is glossed over; indeed, there are very dark and harrowing aspects to this narrative. But everything is handled sensitively and wisely, in a production that never overplays its hand or outstays its welcome.

Arden does many clever, simple things to aid the power of the production. Before the show starts, the cast are onstage, in their underwear, warming up, chatting and signing. There is a sound reason for this, which becomes clear later in the night. Platforms rise and fall unexpectedly; sombre moods switch to frisky frolics. Real bales of hay, perfectly positioned candles, no inhibitions about touching and tactile communication; all add texture. The moment one character carries another offstage to a new life – magical moments in a journey full of surprises.

Alex Boniello voices Moritz, and is superb on the guitar throughout, and his vocals are genuinely goose-bump making. But his excellent work would be for nothing if it were not for Daniel N. Durant’s marvellous turn as the doomed student who can never be good enough for his teachers or parents, who is overcome by the rush of horror and uncertainty puberty brings to him, and who can’t summon up the courage to run away with his friend Ilsa (Krysta Roderiguez in terrific form and voice) until after she has gone. Durant is heart-breaking, most especially in the assiduous setting up of his final tragic act.Spring Awakening at the Brroks Atkinson Theatre

But the beating heart of the production comes from the deliciously judged, powerhouse turn from Austin P. McKenzie who, astonishingly, is making both his Broadway and stage debut here. He is a star, in every sense. Even when he is sitting on the sidelines, in shadow, his presence is undeniable, impossible to ignore. He sings with real beauty of tone and he can slam rock notes into the back wall. He is both geeky and handsome, and so brings all aspects of Melchior’s appeal into focus. And he signs. He is truly astonishing.

In truth, there is no weak link in this cast. Everyone gives top notch commitment. The authority figures are all superb: Russell Harvard, Camryn Manheim, Marlee Maitlin and Patrick Page delight constantly, even when their characters are behaving appallingly. The farcical but dangerous scene where Manheim and Page discuss Melchior’s ten page explanation of sexual congress is sublime; but so too is its counter-point, when Matlin argues for Melchior, pointing out that everything he has written is true and why should the truth be punished? These elder statespersons of the stage breathe dignity, charm and grotesque conformity into the actions of their many characters, but always resplendent with quintessential truth.

This is true, too, of the younger cast members: all sing, dance, sign, act and react with an infectious abandonment that suits the piece and the stage of development all their characters are at. Their high-pitched enthusiasm makes even darker the more sombre passages, such as when Moritz is laid to rest. Otto (Miles Barbee/Sean Grandillo), Martha (Treshelle Edmond) and Anna (Ali Stroker) all deserve special mentions for commitment and skill.

Mientus is wonderful as Hanschen. Silky, arrogant, sexually charged, wild (he moons the audience at one point), he represents the spirit that will use the conventions of society to house and protect his excesses. (Today, he would be a commodities trader or an investment banker). Mientus gives the role everything and almost walks away with the spotlight. His seduction of Ernst atop a piano is both hilarious and gorgeous.

Mientus’ Smash colleague, Rodriguez, is just as good as the heady, free-spirited and nymph-like Ilsa. Her sense of Ilsa’s self-awareness and contentment is profound – the audience desperately wants Moritz to take her hand and flee to whatever awaits.

Dane Laffrey’s scenic and costume design is fantastic and fantastical. The huge stage is used from top to bottom. Great swathes of metal and gangways and ladders provide a sense of an Industrial Age, one committed to routine, strictures and ritual. Homes, classrooms and barns are represented easily, with a few items of furniture, so there is a fluidity about the design which matches the pulse of the music and the speed with which the youngsters must adapt and change.

The costumes are really clever. Manheim and Matlin wear exquisite laced up gowns which can be motherly or not as the moment requires; Rodriguez has a freedom to her clothing which places her in opposition to her school-attending friends but still binds her to Moritz; Melchior is given clothes which seek to obfuscate his manly charms while Mientus is totally tailored from top to bottom, to ensure that his charms are made to glow. Little colour is used, but the palate of black, grey and white proves endlessly imaginative and appropriate, and when the other colours come, they matter.

Ben Stanton’s lighting is quite exceptional too and is an essential element in understanding the quicksilver changes of tone and pace. His ability to make a moment sexy or sad, simply by the level and intensity of light, is unfeasibly expert. What he does at the top of Totally Fucked Is simply genius, and the handling of Moritz’ funeral is raw, utterly beautiful.

This is a gorgeous reimagining of a musical. If you only see one revival on Broadway this year, see this one. Let your cultural gap, at least in one respect, be beautifully, blissfully bridged. The final image, a design coup from Laffrey which cannot but touch the hearts of all who see it, will haunt and embolden you for the rest of your life.

Spring Awakening runs at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre until 24 January 2016. Book Now!

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