I saw this musical on Broadway on 9/15. I had a little adventure before I got to the show: I stopped by the box office for *Misery* - - a play version of the Stephen King book, with Laurie Metcalfe as the psycho kidnapper and Bruce Willis (in his Broadway debut) as the kidnappee. The woman at the window buying tickets when I got there was being a real pain. She was asking about this price on this date, or how about this price on this date, and are you sure you don’t have a matinee on Thursday? Her questions became more and more abstract: Do you have twelve seats in the fourth row for $39? Do you have six seats on the aisle a week after the show closes? That sort of thing. She finally bought her tickets and walked away.
Then it was the turn of the woman ahead of me:
HER: Wow, was she a pain or what!
BOX OFFICE GUY: Oh no, she was fine. What can I get you?
HER: Well first of all, is the play more like the book or the movie?
BOX OFFICE GUY: None of us have seen the play, it hasn’t opened yet.
HER: But is it more like the book or the movie?
BOX OFFICE GUY: I don’t know.
HER: Because I love the movie, but the book is way too disturbing.
BOX OFFICE GUY: You’ve read the book?
HER: No, but my friend did, and she said it was very violent.
BOX OFFICE GUY: Would you like to buy a ticket?
And she went through a similar rigmarole as the other woman. Maybe more grounded in reality, but equally thorny. She got her tickets and it was my turn.
ME: Hello there. I’d like to have two seats on Tuesday January 5th, $69 tickets in the rear balcony.
Oh, did I get a SMILE! I think I might have been his favorite customer that day.
Click here to read my review of *Misery.*
Richard and I met for a quick dinner - - I was going to the show alone (he wasn’t interested in this show), but he thought it would be fun to have dinner together, how cute is that. We snarfed through our food and I got out the door in plenty of time for (what I thought was) my 7:00 curtain. I got there at about 6:40 and was surprised that the doors weren’t yet open. Ah well, they’re still in previews, maybe they’re a little late getting started. Then I saw one of the actors come out of the stage door, in his street clothes, and have a conversation with some friends. THAT was a bad sign. I looked at my ticket, and the show was at 8:00! Did I feel like a dingbat? Yes.
*Spring Awakening* is a musical that premiered on Broadway in 2006. It has music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater. This is the first Broadway revival, and this production has brought something special to the show: it’s a production by the Deaf West Theatre company, directed by Michael Arden. Half of the actors are Deaf (they use a capital D in the program notes, I’ll do the same), the others are hearing.
The musical is based on the play by Frank Wedekind, who also wrote the plays that Berg’s *Lulu* is based on - - Richard and are I seeing a new production of that opera (one of my faves) at the Met this fall. Wedekind’s stock is high, it seems. The story follows a group of German teenagers in the 1890s, with a special focus on them coming of age sexually. The director’s notes point out the link between the play being banned in 1891 and the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf of 1880, at which it was decided that sign language should be banned in schools across Europe and the United States. Students who were unable to succeed in lip reading and speech were labeled “failures”, a word that features prominently in the play.
Two of the main characters were played by Deaf actors, with hearing actors singing their songs and (usually) speaking their dialogue. The director sometimes used projected text on the stage, as a way of conveying dialogue signed by the Deaf actors, or spoken (and not signed) by the hearing actors. Basically, every word in the show was either spoken, sung, signed, and/or projected as text onto the stage.
The two biggest stars in the show were Camryn Manheim and Marlee Matlin, sharing the roles played by adult women (mothers, teachers, etc). Manheim was fantastic, the strongest performance in the show. She studied sign language in college, and had a real facility with the language, more than many of the younger hearing actors, who probably only learned the signs they needed to know for the show (and probably some more, so they could communicate with the Deaf cast members). I should say that I don’t speak sign language, but my mother worked at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf the whole time I was growing up (and beyond) and there’s a sizeable Deaf community in my hometown. It seemed like every time I went to the supermarket with my mom she would run into someone she knew and I would stand on the side and watch them talk. I’ve always seen American Sign Language as a beautiful, expressive language - - it’s like hearing the beauty in a spoken language even though you can’t understand what’s being said. Or like Maurice Sendak, who wasn’t able to read music, but enjoyed looking at printed music from an artistic point of view.
Marlee Matlin was wasted. She’s a great talent, the biggest star in the show, and the most successful and revered Deaf actor in history - - she’s making her Broadway debut, and this is all she’s given to do. Manheim gets all the juiciest parts, Matlin is left playing the noble mother and other dull parts. Plus Matlin’s dialogue is always voiced by Manheim, so Manheim is present in Matlin’s scenes, even when she’s not “playing” them. I want to see Matlin in another show, one that really shows her ability.
The adult male characters were shared by Patrick Page, who I had seen in *Casa Valentina*, and Russell Harvard, who played Daniel Day Lewis’s adult son in *There Will Be Blood*. Harvard had the most beautiful and powerful scene in the show, a scene he shared with the lead young Deaf actor, playing his son. Their scene was done entirely in sign language with the text projected onto the stage, in silence. The use of the projected text was brilliant: at one point the father said, “I’m glad my father didn’t live to see this”, and the text stayed on the stage after the father left - - the words were literally hanging in the air. I wish they had done a parallel all-signing scene with Matlin, found some way to give her performance more depth, more impact.
The younger characters were strongly cast: I wasn’t so impressed with the singing of Austin McKenzie, in the leading role of Melchior (I can only imagine how dreamy Jonathan Groff was in the part, in the original production), but his signing was lovely to watch and he had great chemistry with Sandra Mae Frank as Wendla. Her singing was done by Katie Boeck, she was marvelous. The other double cast leading role was Daniel Durant as Moritz, with Alex Boniello singing his songs, both of them very good.
Ali Stroker was one of the young women in the ensemble. Hard to imagine, but she’s the first person in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway. She got one of the biggest laughs in the show: the boys had a number where they were talking about the girls they like. One of them mentioned her character and she rolled on from the wings, whizzing across the front of the stage with an arm in the air and a big smile at the audience. It was a moment of pure joy.
I loved the production more than I loved the show itself. I think it’s best appreciated by someone under 30. Sort of like Ayn Rand, in that way. And the language is a problem: they often use the flowery, heightened language of the 1891 Wedekind play, which doesn’t mesh with the contemporary English of the songs.
I was lucky enough to get an aisle seat, and was eager to get home when the show was over. I was, after all, an hour later than I thought I would be (grumble grumble). So when the lights went off onstage I dashed down the aisle, to watch the bows nearer to the exit and make a quick getaway. But it turns out there was one more song, the closing number, and I had the wonderful experience of watching the cast sing and sign the song, and turn and watch the whole balcony in rapt attention. It was thrilling. And the song itself (“The Song of Purple Summer”) was so lovely, it made me want to buy the cast album, learn the song, sing it in the shower, and have it stuck in my head on my walk to work.