Amazing Production of Spring Awakening in Beverly Hills

Spring AwakeningNote: Spring Awakening has been extended at the Wallis until June 14.

Amazing, lyrical and innovative are some of the lesser superlatives tossed around as the audience left the production last night of Spring Awakening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, located in Beverly Hills. Deaf West Theatre, a company that reimagines stage shows and produces theatre for diverse casts and audiences, and innovative director Michael Arden’s theater company, the Forest of Arden, stage the production.

For those who saw the versions at the Ahmanson or Pantages Theatres in Los Angeles in recent years (and probably walked away with lukewarm feelings), this version bares little resemblance in feel, clarity and enthusiasm. The Duncan Sheik music is still the same and the basic story is still based on the same 1891 German play about sexually curious adolescents dealing with the repressive adults (parents, teachers and clergy) in their lives.

There are the traditional musical elements (songs, musicians) with the added feature of every word signed or spelled out for those hard of hearing. The cast includes both hearing and deaf actors (including many Broadway and television veterans), some of whom share a role as the speaking or signing versions.

The cast signing with big gestures in unison looks like choreographed dancing. At other times, superscripts are creatively used. For example, when the boys are in school, the words spoken and sung are on the chalkboard.

While officially set in the late 1800s, Spring Awakening’s themes and messages of teen angst and frustration are pertinent for any generation. The cast may all be older (or younger) than the teens and authoritarians they portray, but all come off thoroughly believable in their roles, which is no small feat.

The show begins with the cast preparing and getting into costumes onstage. The opening song, Mama Who Bore Me, begins the process of mesmerizing the audience with the two women playing Wendla, engagingly acted-signed by Sandra Mae Frank and spoken-sung by Katie Boeck, mirroring each other and moving in tandem. They were both exceptional.

Wendla wants to learn more about her changing body and how babies are made. Her repressive mother will not tell her, which sets the underlying tone about adults not addressing the teens’ needs and the teens pushing the envelope in place.

The first half introduces the characters and is generally upbeat (The second half is darker and the teens find out that life does not always turn out well). The songs in Spring Awakening are edgy and rock tinged with titles like The Bitch of Living. (“It’s the bitch of living/ getting what you get/ just the bitch of living and knowing this is it.”)

There is a lot of sexual exploration discussed and tastefully (sometimes comically) shown in the play as they all try to figure it out. As one of the teen males says, “It’s as if the entire world is mesmerized by penis and vagina.”

When one of the male leads, Melchior (played with earnest emotion by Austin McKenzie) gets in trouble, there’s a rocking version of Totally F**ked featuring all the cast members portraying teens. Standing accused, he sings “There’s a moment you know, you’re f**ked/ Not an inch more room to self destruct.”

The perceived-as-hapless Moritz (portrayed-signed by Daniel N. Durant and voiced by Alex Boniello), is frustrated by cruel teachers and his lack of biological facts. During a talking interlude in the number Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind, the tragic bohemian Ilse (winningly played by Krysta Rodriguez) finds him wandering in the field and asks him, “What are you looking for?” Moritz answers, “If only I knew,” before she queries, “Then what’s the use of looking?” It is an exchange everyone can relate to, although the next bit is jarring.

The musicians accompanying the cast in Spring Awakening are onstage. Some are high up in a niche in the wall, others – particularly those playing rock numbers – wander on the stage and in front of it. Boeck and Boniello sometimes play guitar, during their own songs and to support others.

The only flaw with this version of Spring Awakening is that the sound was sometimes muffled. But otherwise, it was a very successful staging. This amazing, unique production of Spring Awakening is in Beverly Hills until June 7.  June 14.

By Dyanne Weiss

Performance of Spring Awakening on May 29, 2015
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (aka The Wallis)

Photo by Kevin Perry, Courtesy of the Wallis

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