At this point, it seems as if everyone and their grandmother has seen Spring Awakening. The musical about repressed teens in 1890s Germany premiered on Broadway almost a decade ago, and has since toured the US a few times, and has been produced by countless colleges and regional theatre companies.
But most productions of Spring Awakening forget to build on director Michael Mayer’s original conception of the show, settling for a cheap carbon copy that rarely shows originality, or adds anything to the story.
Deaf West’s production of the show, though, does add something new to a musical that is familiar to so many. In its production, now running at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, California, the musical is performed simultaneously vocally and through American Sign Language. About half of the characters are played by deaf actors, who sign their words as hearing actors speak and sing the text.
It’s a beautiful choice, and one that resonates on multiple levels. Most importantly, it increases the accessibility of the musical, opening it up to deaf audiences. The addition of sign language also creates a wonderful balance between the characters’ subtext and what they’re saying out loud.
This dichotomy is most evident in songs where the lyrics verge on overly poetic, like ‘The Bitch of Living’ and ‘Mirror-Blue Night’. In the former, the lyrics feature pretty euphemisms for masturbation, but the sign language makes the meaning of the words abundantly clear. The lyrics of the latter are alarmingly obscure, but seeing them physicalised makes the meaning more evident.
Unfortunately, the production suffers from a lack of clarity under director Michael Arden. The relationship between the deaf actors and their ‘voices’ is never really defined — sometimes the ‘voices’ act like corporeal friends, while other times, they’re more like the teens’ imaginations brought to life.
Many of Arden’s choices also come off as gratuitous, going for shock value without any apparent reasoning as to why some images are being presented. While Spring Awakening is a show that inherently pushes boundaries, this production occasionally goes too far, forcing the characters to do things that don’t make sense given their circumstances.
It’s a bit disappointing that these problems are still present in this production of Spring Awakening, which premiered last autumn at a smaller theatre (with lower ticket prices). The cast is quite good (especially Krysta Rodriguez Ilse, and Alex Wyse’s riffs in the song ‘Touch Me’ are a thing of exquisite beauty), but their energy feels a little flat in the Wallis, a theatre with five times the seating capacity of their last venue.
Deaf West’s Spring Awakening soars to great heights — when it’s good, it’s amazing to behold. But the show also falters too often to warrant a wholehearted recommendation.
Spring Awakening is playing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles until 7 June. For tickets and more information, see the Wallis Annenberg Center website. Photo by Kevin Parry.