"Sleeping Beauty Wakes," the new musical fable that had its world premiere Saturday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, breathes new life into a venue that deserves more of this kind of adventurous undertaking.
Which isn't to say that this original musical collaboration between Center Theatre Group and Deaf West Theatre is a dream come true. Nor is it likely to match the success of "Big River," the Deaf West sensation that moved from the company's North Hollywood home to the Mark Taper Forum before going to Broadway, where it received several Tony nominations and a special award for excellence.
The current production, which has a book by Rachel Sheinkin (a Tony winner for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") and music and lyrics by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda (of the indie rock band GrooveLily), is often enchanting. But it's also multilayered to a fault.
Deaf West's customary practice of casting deaf and hearing actors side by side is taken to new and vertiginous heights. While some cast members are voicing and others are signing, still others are playing instruments -- while singing, voicing or signing as well. It's not only the deaf actors who are signing and having someone speak their parts, it's some of the hearing actors too. To complicate matters further, microphones make it exceedingly difficult to figure out where voices are coming from. This may be intentional, but to the uninitiated it can seem like a dubbed foreign movie.
Amid all this frenetic activity, the double-barreled narrative freely blends the once-upon-a-time and modern worlds together. The beauty of fairy tales lies in their deceptive simplicity, but this contemporary handling is knotty in the extreme.
Yet the imaginative ambition is so impressive and Jeff Calhoun's direction so tenderly effervescent it's hard not to smile as you watch this somnolent princess rise from her 900-year-long slumber to find herself in a state-of-the-art sleep clinic with a bunch of strung-out insomniacs who have been collectively dreaming her story whenever they can get a little shut-eye.
The two shows that seem to be the parents of Sheinkin's cute if cumbersome book are Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods" and William Finn and Lapine's "A New Brain." Those works may be pitched more explicitly to adults than "Sleeping Beauty Wakes," but their influence is palpable. And they deserve to be mentioned alongside "Big River," a show that has raised the status of the "sign language theater musical," as Deaf West has termed its creations.
This pioneering genre integrates the unique expressiveness of deaf culture into mainstream musical theater. Calhoun, who earned a Tony nomination for "Big River," has been deservedly praised for his contribution to the form and continues to push for innovation and aesthetic excellence.
Still, it would be limiting to appreciate these productions exclusively in this context. In touch with the wide tradition of the American musical, "Sleeping Beauty Wakes" is a lovely theatrical tumble that defies categories. One doesn't have to be fluent in sign language (or especially interested in theater that incorporates it) to enjoy this ride, just as one needn't be a kid to delight in fairy tales. All that's required is a willingness to go on a fantastic journey. This -- not your auditory level -- is the dividing line.
The story of the snoozing teen who's eventually roused from the evil spell she's under by a princely peck on the cheek has enthralled readers for ages. In "The Uses of Enchantment," the enduring study of the way fairy tales speak to children, Bruno Bettelheim says "Sleeping Beauty" demonstrates the basic lesson that "despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child's sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless."
Rose, the aptly named title character (movingly played by Alexandria Wailes and voiced by Vigoda, who accompanies on electric violin), has fallen hard for the Groundskeeper's Son (played by the appealing Russell Harvard and voiced and sung by Milburn, who multitasks on keyboard). Her parents are fearful of the curse that has been placed on her by the Bad Fairy (played by Deanne Bray and voiced and sung by Erika Amato), who's still furious at not being invited to the girl's christening. Their tyrannical coddling of Rose, however, leads indirectly to the fulfillment of their worst fears. Not only does she want to run off with the gardener, but she has also come upon an outlawed spindle that, when it pricks her finger, spells lights out for a near eternity.
Sheinkin ups the ante by connecting Rose's awakening in the sleep clinic to the mortality of her father (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), who has patiently stuck by her all these centuries -- losing his royal status and having to put up with the indignity of questions about his health insurance. Strangely, the other patients are also negatively affected by Rose's revival, which happens when an orderly (played by Harvard and voiced by Milburn) wakes her with a kiss. Curiously, he looks exactly like the Groundskeeper's Son, whom she always preferred to Prince Charming (played by Troy Kotsur and voiced and sung by Kevin Earley). Many of the figures from her past have a double in the clinic, and these poor patients are unable to catch a wink once she arises to romantic fulfillment and a potential job at White Castle.
The sprightly plot grows increasingly convoluted. Given the relentless shifting between past and present, Sheinkin should have streamlined some of her bright ideas. Perhaps then her interpretation would have achieved a more satisfying emotional focus. But don't let these cavils put you off. There's more than enough pleasure to compensate, especially in the freshly hypnotic way Milburn and Vigoda combine rock 'n' roll, country and R&B.; Even if you occasionally find the story sketchy, there's always something about Sleeping Beauty that won't let your unconscious rest.
'Sleeping Beauty Wakes'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions
Ends: May 13
Price: $20 to $50
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes