It’s a bit soon to bring the rock musical “Spring Awakening” back to Broadway, considering that it closed just seven years ago, but an inspired and innovative revival that incorporates American Sign Language just happened to be staged in Los Angeles which deserved a New York run.
“Spring Awakening” is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German expressionist drama of the same name about teens whose parents left them utterly unprepared for the hormonal turbulence of adolescence, leading to tragic consequences.
In stark contrast to the provincial, 19th-century setting and its repressive code of conduct, songwriter Duncan Sheik and playwright-lyricist Steven Sater created a contemporary pop-rock score that expresses the teens’ inner life, frustrations and longings.
The revival was conceived by Deaf West Theatre, whose production of the “Huck Finn” musical “Big River” came to Broadway in 2003. Among the cast was Michael Arden, who is the director of “Spring Awakening.”
The 28-member cast is comprised of both hearing and deaf actors, and many roles are shared. For instance, Wendla, the lead female, is portrayed physically by deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank, while Katie Boeck provides Wendla’s voice. As the daring Melchoir, Austin McKenzie both speaks and signs his lines. Some of the actors also double as musicians.
Although it’s hard to shake off memories of the brilliant original production (which had a cast including Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr. and Skylar Astin), Arden’s revival is visually stunning, emotionally poignant and thoroughly exciting in its own right.
The use of sign language (which functions as a kind of gestural choreography) reflects how the teens are unable to meaningfully talk with their parents or teachers, while the adults cannot hear them.
Standouts among the cast include Krysta Rodriguez as the sad but fierce runaway Ilse and the spirited Ali Stroker, who may be the first wheelchair-bound actress to appear on Broadway. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin makes a cameo as one of the adults, alongside Camryn Manheim (“The Practice”) and the crisp-voiced Patrick Page.
“Spring Awakening” runs at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through Jan. 24, 2016, 256 W. 47th St., springawakeningthemusical.com