Deaf West Theatre has a way of reimagining musicals. The company’s practice of assigning certain roles to two actors, one singing, the other signing, opens the art form up to deaf performers and theatergoers.
But it’s more than just that: At its best, this approach to casting throws fresh aesthetic light on shows we assumed we already knew.
Certainly that was the case with the company’s most famous production, “Big River,” which made it to Broadway in 2003 and was honored with a Tony for theatrical excellence. A 2009 revival of “Pippin” at the Mark Taper Forum found new communicative purposes for an army of Bob Fosse jazz hands.
And a fresh take on Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2007 Tony winner “Spring Awakening” was such a success at Inner-City Arts’ Rosenthal Theater last fall that it has been reprised at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.
If you missed this “Spring Awakening” the first time around, count yourself lucky that you have an opportunity to catch it now. (The show runs at the Wallis through June 7.) Michael Arden’s stage plan stunningly employs all sorts of chiaroscuro effects to create a theatrical world — half-modern, half-antique — in which this musical poem, based on Frank Wedekind’s daring 1891 play about the societal oppression and irrepressible sexuality of teenagers, can be lyrically reborn.
The production, a collaboration between Deaf West Theatre and Arden’s theater company, the Forest of Arden, begins with Wendla (played by Sandra Mae Frank and voiced by Katie Boeck) singing “Mamma Who Bore Me,” the brooding number that instantly establishes the show’s foreboding mood.
Wendla wants information about the changes taking place inside her body, but her mother (Natacha Roi), as fearfully repressed as she is fearsomely repressive, is unable to explain that what is happening to her daughter is perfectly natural and healthy. The consequences of this maternal cowardice will reverberate throughout the story.
Splitting the role of Wendla between two performers evocatively expresses the alienation of this confounded adolescent, whose body has become a perplexing stranger to her. It helps that Frank and Boeck are well matched, with Frank beautifully embodying Wendla’s anguished vulnerability and Boeck sweetly musicalizing her tender spirit.
Not all of the roles are shared. Melchior, the accidental rebel at school who can’t help falling in love with Wendla or following the dictates of his conscience, is played solely by Austin McKenzie, who delivers a charismatic indie-rock star turn.
Melchior immediately comes into our good graces for defending Moritz (played by Daniel N. Durant and voiced by Alex Boniello), the hapless student overwhelmed by the cruelty of his teachers and the guilt caused by his own raging desires. Moritz’s melancholy, exacerbated by hypocritical adult morality and the suppression of basic biological facts, prefigures a tragic destiny, albeit one that could easily be avoided if those in authority could only remember that they too were once troubled adolescents.
Regardless of their actual ages, the cast members of this “Spring Awakening” give the appearance of being in the throes of that tumultuous period when youth tentatively ventures into adulthood. This allows the subject matter of Sater’s book — child abuse, homosexuality, suicide and teen pregnancy — to sting all the more.
Sheik’s alternative rock score musically conveys the emotional powder keg of puberty. The sound is ever in flux: Longing leads to frustration and fury, followed by bliss, which bleeds into despair, all culminating in the wounded wisdom of maturity. (“Oh, you’re gonna be wounded” is the guarantee of the reprised song “The Word of Your Body.”)
The orchestra, under the musical direction of Jared Stein, is ingeniously arrayed. Several musicians are tucked away in the upper reaches of Dane Laffrey’s mesmerizing cat-walk-strewn set, while others jam front and center with the cast. Boeck and Boniello occasionally accompany their characters on guitar, further dissolving the boundary between the acting company and the band.
Arden’s direction is distinguished by the fluidity of his production’s musical stagecraft. Spencer Liff’s choreography helps maintain the hypnotic flow. Ben Stanton’s lighting, with its slanting shafts and darkened pockets, contributes to the overall dreamscape feeling, which is especially important in a work about frightened teenagers escaping whenever possible to the sanctuary of their imaginations.
Given the complex logistics imposed by the casting, the storytelling can get muddled in places. The use of microphones can make it difficult to track who is singing and who is speaking. And a few of the older performers stumble when portraying the autocratic teachers — they’re meant to be menacing cartoons, but here they seem oddly beset with stage fright.
But this version of “Spring Awakening” must go down as a rousing success. Beyond the enthralling scenic design, the production has a youthful ensemble vigor that reanimates the joyful sense of discovery while recalling the anxiety, sorrow and disillusionment that are every bit as much a part of growing up. Deaf West’s admirable inclusiveness seduces us through its artfulness. This is a show for anyone who wants to see a contemporary American musical superbly done.
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 7.
Info: (310) 746-4000, https://www.thewallis.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes