They Tell Of Spring Returning

Angela Tricarico

The 2015-2016 Broadway season is shaping up to be a good one, and the Tony eligibility window is still wide open. Some shows have yet to premiere, some are in previews, and some have been drawing a lot of attention with the press.

But in the revivals category, it seems nothing is more talked about than Deaf West Theater’s revival of Shiek and Sater’s Spring Awakening.

A scene Deaf West Theater’s revival Spring Awakening (LA Times photo)
A scene Deaf West Theater’s revival Spring Awakening
(LA Times photo)

To some, it seems too soon to revive the show; the original production opened on Broadway 9 years ago, in December 2006. To others, they’re saying that the timing couldn’t be more perfect; Broadway is more diverse than ever.

Deaf West Theater specializes in bringing theater to deaf audiences using both deaf and hearing actors. The concept, at first, is a little tricky to understand, but at the heart of it all, every deaf actor cast in a part is given a voice, courtesy of another actor.

It’s basically two people as two halves, creating a whole character: deaf for the deaf viewers, and hearing for those who don’t understand ASL and can hear.

For a while, Broadway was never even in the question for this production, which gave its first performance just over a year ago in a 99 seat theater in Los Angeles.

The mastermind behind it all is Michael Arden, the show’s director. A veteran performer with Deaf West Theater (Big River on Broadway, Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum), Arden wanted to try his hand at directing. The idea for Spring Awakening came from his fiancé, actor Andy Mientus. Mientus had been a part of Spring Awakening’s first national tour playing Hänschen Rilow. Mientus suggested it to Arden, and just a short while later it was being staged. Arden’s vision for the show was to actually incorporate deafness into it, as a plot point.

After researching, it turned out that there were bans on the use of sign language and educating the deaf was based on the concept of oralism: speaking and lip reading as an alternative to using sign.

All of this was period-appropriate to the time period of Spring Awakening, in 1891 Germany.

When casting the show, it had to be decided which characters would be deaf (with a voicing actor), and which would be hearing. Daniel N. Durant plays Moritz Stiefel, one of Spring Awakening’s two male leads. Durant is profoundly deaf: he has never heard a sound in his life. Alex Boniello becomes Durant’s and Moritz’s voice; singing and speaking, while also playing guitar in the on-stage band. The choreography is clever in the ways that Boniello is used, giving cues to Durant so he can keep up with where they’re at in any given scene. The female lead, Wendla Bergmann is the same way; she is played by Sandra Mae Frank and voiced by Katie Boeck. Boeck is another guitarist in the band as well.

Melchior Gabor is the other male lead, played by Austin McKenzie, a hearing actor who had plans to become an interpreter for the show before being cast as the lead. The cast features over 20 Broadway debuts, including Ali Stroker who made history as Broadway’s first wheelchair bound person ever. Rounding out the company is Broadway vet Krysta Rodriguez as Ilse Neumann, Mientus reprising Hänschen, Treshelle Edmond and Kathryn Gallagher (voice/guitar) splitting Martha Bessell, the role of Ernst Robel being shared by Joshua Castille and Daniel David Stewart (voice/piano), Alex Wyse as Georg Zirschnitz, Miles Barbee and Sean Grandillo (voice/bass) playing Otto Lämmermeier, Stroker as Anna, Amelia Hensley and Lauren Luiz (voice) sharing Thea, Alexandra Winter (harp) as Greta, Patrick Page and Russell Harvard as the six adult men roles, Marlee Matlin and Camryn Mannheim as the six adult women roles.

After casting the show, came putting the show together. A lot of the production falls on choreographer Spencer Liff. Liff was able to incorporate ASL and nonverbal cues into his choreography. The nonverbal cues have been extremely helpful to the deaf actors, so they are able to keep on pace with the actor giving them their voice. The show goes virtually unchanged, however. The songs are still the same songs, and the plot is still the same plot. It just seems like an extra layer has been added.

More depth to the show, and more ability to watch the show and feel. Deaf West’s Spring Awakening is an interesting concept, and it seems the public has latched on to it. The show has been gaining nothing but rave reviews since previews started in September. Even better, are the reactions from the hearing and voicing actors; they all say they’ve learned so much and have been so touched working with this deaf and hard of hearing cast. What once seemed impossible is being made possible 8 times a week at the Brooks Atkinson Theater now through January 24, 2016.