ARTS & CULTURE
Critic's Choice

An emotionally charged 'Spring Awakening' by Deaf West Theatre

Deaf West Theatre's production of 'Spring Awakening' an emotional triumph

For anyone who didn’t quite connect with the 2008 Ahmanson Theatre production of "Spring Awakening" on an emotional level, the current production by Deaf West Theatre will redress that deficit brilliantly.

If rippling goosebumps are any indication of emotional involvement, this show delivers.

The Tony Award-winning musical in 2007, "Spring Awakening" is the adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play about sexually curious adolescents pitted against the repressive German status quo, capturing the head-banging frustration of its disaffected young characters in dashing style.

Duncan Sheik's haunting original music and Steven Sater's rawly postmodern book and lyrics were ground-breaking -- ironic counterpoints to the suffocating conventions of the play's period.

It's hard to enumerate all the ways in which the Deaf West's “Awakening” is so very, very good. Certainly, the smaller venue of Inner-City Arts' Rosenthal Theater lends new intimacy to the proceedings.

The production design, including Christopher Scott Murillo's ingeniously minimalist scenic and costume designs, Philip G. Allen's subtle sound, and most strikingly, Travis Hagenbuch's lighting, which ranges from the minatory to the glaring, is superlative.

Those crucial trappings set off the precocious abilities of the mostly youthful performers. Apart from splendid Natacha Roi and ever-able Deaf West veteran Troy Kotsur, well-voiced by Daniel Marmion, who play all the adult roles in the piece, no one else in the cast looks much older than 16. But all, from the leads to the lesser roles, are mature talents.

As in all Deaf West productions, the cast consists of both hearing and deaf actors whose combined speaking and signing lends symbolic punch to the plight of these voiceless youths.

The signing in this production does more than simply translate; it ennobles. Spencer Liff's choreography incorporates signing and movement into perfectly coordinated sequences that seem completely organic to the narrative, while music director Jared Stein exploits the show's young singers to spine-tingling effect.

As Melchior, the budding intellectual later scapegoated by poisonous pedagogues, Austin McKenzie charts the turbulent waters from innocence to experience with extraordinary finesse.

The role of Melchior's beloved, Wendla, a sheltered girl whose ignorance of sex proves catastrophic, is alternatively signed and spoken-sung by Sandra Mae Frank and Katie Boeck, respectively. Both perfectly capture the terror and confusion of their character, doomed by her own innocence.

Also exceptional is Daniel N. Durant as Moritz, Melchior's ill-fated friend, voiced by Rustin Cole Sailors. So memorable in Deaf West's production of “Flowers for Algernon,” Durant is a spellbinder who jerks his fair share of tears in a galvanic turn.

Yet the real star of the evening is director Michael Arden, whose staging involves a mind-bogglingly intricate meld of the show's many disparate elements.

Compositionally spectacular and emotionally truthful, his “Awakening” awakens us to the dormant possibilities of this musical, with all the goosebumps and teardrops to prove it.

“Spring Awakening,” Rosenthal Theater, Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov 9. $34. (818) 762-2998. www.deafwest.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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