The lights of Broadway are a world away from the small theater space at Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles where Deaf West Theatre’s staging of “Spring Awakening” began its life a year ago.
The revival production opened on Sunday to enthusiastic reviews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York for what will be a limited run through late January. Directed by Michael Arden, whose collaborations with L.A.-based Deaf West have included the 2003 staging of “Big River,” the new production features the company’s signature mix of spoken and signed dialogue with a cast of deaf and hearing actors.
Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” opened in September 2014 at Inner-City Arts’ Rosenthal Theater, in the skid row area of downtown L.A. (The company originally wanted to launch the musical at a space in Silver Lake, but plans fell through.) The run was partially funded by an online Kickstarter campaign.
Following strong reviews and word of mouth, Deaf West brought the production to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, where it opened in May and saw its run there extended due to popular demand.
On Sunday, a number of critics pointed out that the Deaf West revival comes close -- perhaps too close -- to the original Broadway run. Adapted from the play by Frank Wedekind and featuring a score by Duncan Sheik, “Spring Awakening” opened at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company in 2006 and then moved to Broadway later that year, running until 2009 and spawning a national tour.
Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called the revival “thrillingly inventive,” though the mix of spoken and signed dialogue may at first create “a mild case of sensory overload.”
New York magazine’s Jesse Green wrote that “this revival would have been unjustifiable were it not for the brilliant idea of placing the story in the context of deafness and using many deaf actors to tell it.” Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard concluded that the youthful cast is “sensational,” though the grown-up characters “are drawn and played as cardboard villains.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Bill Keith wrote that “American Sign Language grants the show more heft and sincerity, and, in turn, a new level of intimacy.” The show’s creative team, which includes choreographer Spencer Liff, uses sign language "as a way to amazingly imbue Duncan Sheik’s songs with even more passion and conviction."
The Broadway cast features some new names that weren’t part of the L.A. stagings -- most notably Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and Camyrn Manheim, who take on some of the grown-up roles.