Show/Venue: Spring Awakening at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Date: Wednesday, September 8th, 2015 @ 8pm & Saturday, January 16th, 2016 @ 2pm
Starring: Sandra Mae Frank, Austin P. McKenzie, Daniel N. Durant, Marlee Matlin (preview only), Camryn Manheim (preview only), Krysta Rodriguez, Andy Mientus, Ali Stroker, Alex Wyse
I first heard about Spring Awakening in was in the summer of 2007, when Tony Nominations were announced; what was this musical and why were teenagers going nuts for it? In case you haven’t heard about the show, it’s based on a German play written by Frank Wedekind in 1891. The story revolves around the sexual awakening of a group of teenagers in Germany, but the story is told through modern rock music written by Duncan Sheik (of “Barely Breathing” fame). All of this was pretty revolutionary for the time, as not many shows had dared to put modern music with a period piece storyline (i.e. Pre-Hamilton).
The workshop and the show plucked some unknown teenagers out of obscurity and made them famous in the musical theatre circles; after all, this was pre-Glee. Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr., are now household names were the three lead characters; with Gallagher Jr. taking home the Tony Award for his performance as Moritz Stiefel. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see the show in New York City, but I was super excited when the tour came to Philadelphia during my brief 10 months in the city. There, I saw the original staging from this Best Musical winner, but nothing could have prepared me for this Deaf West Theatre staging of the show.
My first experience with the Deaf West staging, in all its American Sign Language (ASL) glory, was with my best friend, Jeffrey, as we got 2-for-1 tickets during NYC GO’s Broadway Week. I gave Jeffrey a little debriefing about the story, but told him I would definitely shed a tear or two during the performance. We happened to attend a show during Previews that included closed captioning for the whole performance, which was nice, in case anyone needed a refresher on the lyrics or couldn’t understand them.
In this production, two of the three leads are played by deaf actors; Wendla Bergmann(Sandra Mae Frank) and Mortiz Stiefel (Daniel N. Durant), where Melchior Gabor is played by hearing actor, Austin P. McKenzie, who signs throughout the show. Each of the deaf actors had “voice” counterparts, who also play instruments in the band. Wendla’s voice is Katie Boeck and Moritz’s voice is Alex Boniello; who shadow their actors throughout the show and double as their character’s conscience on stage.
About five minutes before the start of the show, all of the actors appear onstage in their underwear. The audience watches them get ready for the performance and get dressed. Then, as the show begins, both Wendla’s enter the stage and Boeck passes Frank a small white cotton dress, as Frank passes Boeck her guitar through the frame of a standing mirror. As soon as the familiar notes of “Mama Who Bore Me” started I was transfixed. Wendla sings about the changes in her body, asking her mother for advice and to educate her. (In Previews, and up until the last week, Camryn Manheim played Frau Bergmann & the voice for the Adult Women, with Elizabeth Greene playing her during my second show.) Her mother is celebrating the arrival of Wendla’s sister’s baby and Wendla challenges her mother, as she is much too old to believe that children still come from the Stork. Frau Bergmann tries to tell her daughter about where babies come from, but stalls and only tells her that they come from when a woman really loves her husband, “as only she can do.” The other girls then echo Wendla’s lament in “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)” before the scenes shift and we see the boys in a classroom.
The boys are reciting lines in Latin, as Herr Sonnenstich (Patrick Page, also the voice for the Adult Men) quizzes them over the various phrases. It’s here that we see Moritz (Durant), napping in the back of the classroom. Of course, he is unable to recite the next line and Melchior (McKenzie) comes to his rescue. Herr Sonnenstich still ridicules Moritz in front of his classmates and even mocks his ability to speak. After class, Moritz thanks Melchior and confesses that he was up all night, haunted by a dream about a woman’s legs. He comes to Melchior for advice as to what he can to help cure him of these dreams. Melchior sings “All That’s Known” and how what he has learned in life has caused him to question history, science and his own teachers. He confesses that he’s an Athiest and doesn’t believe in God or anything. (I really loved when McKenzie would sing and sign “you watch me” at the same time, the use of ASL really punctuated the lyrics of this song.)
All of the boys get together to sing “The Bitch of Living,” as Moritz describes his night terrors/dreams about a woman’s legs. They boys lament about what they should do about these feelings that are haunting their lives. Georg (Alex Wyse) sings about his piano teacher and her breasts, Hanschen (Andy Mientus) sings about Bobby & his desires for him, and in my favorite moment, Ali Stroker wheels across the stage as one of the boys sings about his crush on Marianna Wheelan. Melchior then echoes “you watch me” while says “in sensing God is dead,” further emphasizing his Atheism and his controversial beliefs.
In the next scene, the girls are talking about their desires of boys. The topic of conversation is about how Melchior “doesn’t believe in anything” and they sing about their crushes in “My Junk.” They have begun to realize that these crushes are a part of life and share their common feelings about the boys in their town. The boys join in, referring back to their crushes in “The Bitch of Living,” Georg sings about his piano teacher, Hanschen fantasizes with a photo, with more clever use of ASL and simulating a hand job on stage; first from himself and then from various members of the girls ensemble.
At the beginning of “Touch Me,” Melchior is speaking about his escape; how he leaves the current world behind and fantasizes about a woman. The ensemble joins in as they sing about their feelings and desires; here, Moritz is overwhelmed and can’t seem to figure out how sex works. He leaves Melchior’s house abruptly, which causes Fraulein Gabor (Marlee Matlin in previews and Alexandria Wailes in my second show) to think he’s being disturbed by the books Melchior has been sharing with him, knowing nothing about the brochure Melchior has written for Moritz.
Then while gathering flowers for her mother, Wendla, finds Melchior in the woods. They have not seen in each other in years and suddenly realize that they are attracted to each other. At first, Wendla is nervous and wants to head back home; but her hormones tell her otherwise. She stays with Melchior in the woods and they sing “The Word of Your Body” as they gaze into the night and hold hands. The passages of “oh, I’m gonna be wounded, oh, I’m gonna bruise you, oh, you’re gonna be my bruise” are even more tragic and beautiful as the actors sign these words while tenderly touching each other.
Back in the town, Moritz has snuck into the Headmaster’s office and found out that he passed his midterms! Ever the poor student, he and his friends are elated he has passed, as he does not know what his father would do to him, if he were to fail at school. Overseeing this celebration, Headmaster Knochenbruch (Patrick Page) and Fraulein Knuppeldick (Camryn Manheim/Elizabeth Greene) realize that they cannot allow Moritz to pass into the next grade. They hatch a conspiracy to ensure that he will not pass onto the next grade.
The girls are running around outside playfully, when Anna (Ali Stroker) notices that one of Martha’s (Treshelle Edmond) braids is coming undone. Martha panics and the girls tease her about how her father makes her wear her braids all the time. A light-hearted moment suddenly turns dark, as Martha reveals that her father beats her, almost nightly. She shows them her right arm, filled with welts and scars from where his belt and belt buckle have hit her. The girls rally around Martha, but also realize in this time, there’s not much they can do. They speak about their friend, Ilse, who went through a similar situation in her own family and has now been banished. In “The Dark I Know Well,” Martha and Ilse reveal how they were abused by their own family members and why they never talk about what happened. Here, Kathryn Gallagher, is the voice of Martha and also accompanies her on guitar.
After witnessing Martha’s bruises and welts, Wendla longs to feel something, anything. She corners Melchior in the woods and begs him to beat her with a switch she found in the woods. Melchior hesitates, but gives in and quickly becomes dominate over Wendla, hitting her with force and yelling demeaning things at her. Just as quickly he realizes he has gone too far and abandons Wendla in the woods, as she is keeled over, crying.
The final exams have come and gone and Moritz realizes that his father cannot face the shame that comes with his son’s failure. In this production, Moritz’s father is played by another deaf actor, Russell Harvard, who uses his own voice to express his extreme disappointment with Durant’s Moritz. This aggressive interaction between father and son, brought tears to my eyes and in this scene, ASL was used and their words were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. As Moritz flees, he writes to Melchior’s mother for advice and for money to flee to America. Frau Gabor lets him know that she will fully support him, but cannot give him the money. Through “And Then There Were None,” Moritz expresses his woes and we learn that he is having thoughts of suicide. Frau Gabor tries to comfort him and to offer her services to write a letter to Moritz’s parents, but it’s too late. Moritz’s has found his father’s gun and his voice counterpart has already concealed it in his jacket pocket.
In one of my favorite numbers from the original show, “The Mirror-Blue Night,” features Melchior in a hayloft; singing about the stage in life between childhood and becoming an adult. The ensemble put on gloves with light up tips, to help emphasize the ASL and also the movement of the stars in the sky. The lights dance around the stage as Melchior stands on top of several hay bales, thinking to himself when Wendla appears. Melchior is startled, but happy to see Wendla and he convinces her to stay in the hayloft with him. In a tender moment, they kiss and Wendla starts to acknowledge the sensations in her body. During “I Believe,” Melchior and Wendla make love on the hay bales as Act One comes to a close. However, Wendla still has no idea that what is happening could result in a baby.
At the top of Act Two, Melchior and Wendla, are meeting again during “The Guilty Ones.” They walk, blindfolded, across rows of chairs and meet in the middle of the stage. Here, they kiss and continue to get to know each other’s bodies. Melchior sings about his feelings towards Wendla, as he has more knowledge of his own sexuality and begins to feel a twinge of that guilt.
Having revealed his failure, Moritz has been kicked out of his home and is wandering through the woods, where he intends to use his father’s gun to kill himself (“Don’t Do Sadness”). He’s just about to pull the trigger, when Ilse (Krysta Rodriguez); who has also been kicked out of her home and is now living in an artists’ colony, surprises him. He loses the gun on the ground and Ilse tries to help him look, even though he doesn’t reveal what he is trying to find. As they talk, they reminisce about their childhood and how they used to play with Melchior and Wendla (“Blue Wind”). Ilse tries to get Mortiz to walk her home, but he refuses. After Ilse leaves him all alone, Moritz finds and raises the gun to his chin and pulls the trigger; lights come up on the stage and Ilse reappears. It’s then that she discovers Moritz’s body and Rodriguez emits a silent scream that broke my heart in both performances.
The next scene is Moritz’s funeral; some of the boys bring in the casket as family and friends come to pay their respects “Left Behind.” Watching Harvard emit silent sobs as he realizes his son is gone and he shouldn’t have come down so hard on him, also brought tears to my eyes. After the funeral, Headmaster Knochenbroch and Fraulein Knuppeldick do not want Moritz’s suicide pinned on the school and they begin to look for someone to place the blame on. Shortly thereafter that they find Melchior’s brochure and realize they have found the perfect subject. As Melchior tries to find a way out of the situation, he realizes that he’s “Totally Fucked.” The ensemble joins in on this number as the boys and girls talk about what it’s like when the adults in your life ruin everything.
In another part of the town, Hanschen is with another schoolmate, Ernst. Rather timid, Ernst is telling Hanschen that he wants to become a priest after graduation. It’s here that Mientus is at his most brilliant, as he seduces Ernst in “The Word of Your Body (Reprise)” with a sly smile and conniving glance. After several passionate kisses, Ernst realizes that maybe being a priest isn’t the best idea, as he realizes that he loves Hanschen.
Back at Wendla’s home, a doctor has been called, as Wendla has fallen ill and her mother is concerned. The doctor diagnoses her with anemia, but pulls Frau Bergmann aside to say that young Wendla is pregnant. Frau Bergmann is shocked and upset, as she cannot believe her daughter was even old enough to know what is going on. Frau Bergmann wants a confession of who the boy is who “did this to you!” and Wendla reveals that it was Melchior. Frau Bergmann slaps Wendla across the face as Frank screams “why didn’t you tell me everything!” Wendla then contemplates her situation in “Whispering” and writes Melchior a letter to inform him about their baby.
In the meantime, Melchior has been sent to a reformatory; against his mother’s wishes. Here, the boys in the reformatory taunt Melchior as the goody-goody, until they read Wendla’s letter aloud and learn of her pregnancy.
In the shadows, Frau Bergmann is meeting with a woman who will help her daughter with a “procedure,” most likely an abortion. Wendla does not know what’s going on, as she is dragged off stage by men in white suits. Her screams of “Mama” made me cry for at least the fifth time during the show.
Ilse has then delivered a letter to the girls from Melchior, intended for Wendla. In it he writes that he will meet her in the cemetery behind the church, so they can run away and be together. It’s here that we realize that Wendla did not make it out of the “procedure” alive. That night, at midnight, Melchior runs into the cemetery to meet Wendla and stumbles upon Moritz’s grave. He remembers all the good times with his friend and vows that the adults will not ruin his life, like they did his friends. While waiting, he finds a fresh grave and dusts off the dirt to read the inscription. He then reads “Wendla Bergmann” and “anemia” as her cause of death. Overcome with grief, Melchior wants to kills himself, but at this moment, the ghost of Moritz appears (“Those You’ve Known”) and encourages him to go on. He’s then followed by Wendla’s ghost who speaks the same. Melchior then resolves to carry on with his life in their memory.
As Act Two winds down, Ilse returns to sing “The Song of Purple Summer” and how the adults in the world will not keep them down. The world will continue to progress and the children will continue to ask questions and gain knowledge. The back of the stage opens up to heaven, and each character, dressed down in their underwear, walks through the arch into the trees. In a tender moment, Mientus picks up Stroker to carry her into the sunset.
I was very fortunate to see this staging of Spring Awakening twice during its limited Broadway run and I was very glad that I did. Seeing the show twice, I was able to sit in the front Mezzanine during previews and experience the show with my best friend and then see the show from the sixth row in Orchestra on my own and really get a chance to watch the actor’s expressions and signing.
I was very impressed by Austin P. McKenzie who played Melchior in a role that Jonathan Groff made so iconic. As a hearing actor, he studied American Sign Language and was able to help bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf actors during the show; very similar to how Melchior anchors the storylines together.
As Moritz and Wendla, Daniel N. Durant and Sandra Mae Frank, made me a fan immediately. Even without speaking, their faces and signing emoted all the feelings of their characters. Their voice counterparts of Alex Boniello and Katie Boeck, were just as stunning, being able to interact and perform in their roles and play the guitar. I would say that this was the only time that I found the voice counterparts for the deaf actors a bit strange; because Boeck stands just aside of Frank during the sex scene. There was something a bit awkward about that situation.
My first experience seeing Krysta Rodriguez was in SMASH and as the fierce Ana, she became one of my favorites in that series. Then, I had the opportunity to see her twice in First Date with Zachary Levi, but I was blown away by her singing and performance in this role. Having just recovered from chemo for breast cancer, her hair was kept short for the role of Ilse, which made it all the more impactful. I’ll never forget that silent scream!
SMASH was also my first experience with Andy Mientus and I was excited to finally see him in a live performance. I’m so glad that he and his partner, Michael Arden, were able to bring this story to Broadway. His portrayal of Hanschen was a bit evil, cunning and sly. Everything Hanschen is and needed to be. Of course, he’s immediately a scene stealer with his on-stage masturbation & make out scene with Ernst on the top of a piano. I also can’t forget his Instagram posts of bleaching his hair to get the almost white-blond hair that Hanschen needed to have.
I also enjoyed Alex Wyse’s performance as George. After seeing him in Bare, a few years back, I was excited to see that he was going to be in this show. He easily brought a little more camp and fun to the role, which was played by Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect) in the Original Broadway Cast.
I walked away as a fan of many of the actors in this show and hope that this will not be the last Deaf West Theatre production that makes it to the East Coast. I learned quite a bit from the show and really appreciated the way the deaf and hearing actors were paired up. The production team also made great use of video projection when the hearing actors were speaking, but could not sign and when the deaf actors were signing, but could not speak. The text and fonts changed for each character, but the same chalkboard writing was projected onto the back of the stage, so all audience members could still understand what was going on in the performance.
Spring Awakening continues to be one of my favorite musicals and I hope that someday, it will be revived again for more generations to enjoy. For now, I can look forward to a discussion panel with some of the cast and crew at BroadwayCon at the end of January in NYC!
Mama Who Bore Me
Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)
All That’s Known
The Bitch of Living
The Word of Your Body
The Dark I Know Well
And Then There Were None
The Mirror-Blue Night
The Guilty Ones
Don’t Do Sadness
The Word of Your Body (Reprise)
Those You’ve Known
The Song of Purple Summe