There are good excuses one could give to oneself for not seeing “Spring Awakening” at the Inner City Art’s Rosenthal Theater. A musical version of an 19th century German play, a production of Deaf West Theatre whose blending of sign language into the written material can at times be problematic, and a theatre set in a portion of downtown L.A. that at best can be described as “adventurous”. Yes, these are all sound reasons to pass on seeing “Spring Awakening”. However, in doing so, you’ll be depriving yourself of one of the most outstanding shows L.A. has had in a good long time.
It is startling to see any show in which the planets align perfectly with the sun, basking an audience in the glorious glow of the outer corona. “Spring Awakening” achieves that rare, jaw-dropping alignment except, in this case, the sun has entered a super nova phase.
Written in 1891, “Spring Awakening” was the first major work by German dramatist Frank Wedekind. It was a brutally frank condemnation of his society’s repression of all expressions and discussion of sexuality, and the dire consequence that such repression would have on the nation’s youth. Wedekind did not shy away from adolescent sexuality, child abuse, homosexuality, suicide, rape and the criminality of abortion. The play did not find a German theatre courageous enough to produce it for eleven years, and even then the conservative government with the church’s encouragement saw that it was soon closed.
The first American production was in 1917, and that production was accused of being pornographic and limited to one performance.
The focus of the play is on a group of German school mates as they try to deal with their emerging sexual drives in a society where discussion about such matters is forbidden.
While still framed in the context of the period, the music by Duncan Sheik and the book and lyrics by Steven Sater explode forth with a thoroughly modern slant, and what is chilling about the production at the Rosenthal Theater is how much resonance this piece still possesses today. In our own time when conservative forces seek to block the teaching of sexual education in public schools, this show offers the sage counsel, that the greatest threat to the youth in any age is ignorance.
Sater and Sheik took seven years of re-writing, re-working and workshopping the piece. Liberties were taken with the original work, but its accusatory tone was never compromised, nor did they sentimentalize or sanitize those disturbing aspects of the play that would have nullified its sub-title “A Children’s Tragedy.”
In 2006 Sater and Sheik’s musical rendering of “Spring Awakening” opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway and was an immediate hit. The show won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. It also won four Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy for original cast album.
It has since gone on to productions in London, where it won four Olivier Awards including Best Musical, as well as Finland, Sweden, Japan and even Korea. However it is hard to imagine any of those productions having anything over the staging at the Rosenthal Theater.
In the past, Deaf West Theatre’s combination of actors both hearing impaired and otherwise, with extensive signing of dialogue on stage has proven hit and miss. With “Spring Awakening” that approach has been layered onto the material so brilliantly it not only “hits”, but knocks it out of the stadium.
Shoshannah Stern, the ASL Master, responsible for translating the written script into American Sign Language and choreographer Spencer Liff have found a perfect fusion under Michael Arden’s utterly flawless direction to where a hearing audience is all but oblivious to the signing. Within the staging some actors sing and deliver their lines in their own voice, the deaf artists have their own shadowy doppelgangers who provide voice to song and speech while fulfilling the more intriguing function as that of the characters daemons.
In large cast shows one is accustomed to seeing cracks of talent shine forth from individual performers. “Spring Awakening” all but ruptures with so much talent you can pull out the old chestnut, “a star is born” and apply it here as “a whole bunch of stars are born here”. We are talking on par with the Milky Way.
Austin McKenzie as Melchior, the young intellectual of the school, staggers one with the breadth of his talent. Sandra Mae Frank as Wendla, a sheltered young girl who is doomed by her mother’s inability to speak frankly with her on sexual matters, is heartbreaking in her role aided by her “voice” Katie Boeck. Boeck herself brings amazing dimensions to her part with a singing voice of the first order. In this capacity Rustin Cole Sailors also excels as the “voice” of Moritz, played by deaf artist Daniel N. Durant with aplomb.
The young cast members are all standouts in this production.
Jimmy Bellinger as the clownish Georg, Treshelle Edmond as Martha (with Kathryn Gallagher as “voice”), who hides a horrid secret about her home life, Ali Stroker as Anna, Joshua Castille as Ernst (“voiced” by Daniel David Stewart) and Joseph Haro as Hanschen, two young students who find a different expression of love for themselves, Lauren Patten is superb as Llse the classmate who has run off to live the Bohemian life of an artist’s model, Miles Barbee as Otto (voiced be Sean Grandillo) and Amilia Hensley as Thea (excellently voiced by Alexandra Winter) are also outstanding.
Troy Kosur, Daniel Marmion and Natacha Roi are also marvelous as the adults whose strict social morality eventually strangles their own children. Travis Hagenbuch’s frenetic lighting design and Philip G. Allen’s sound design add wonderfully to the power of Sater and Sheik’s amazing score. Simply put, Michael Arden has delivered a show that exceeds all expectations.
This is one that people will be talking about for some time, and if you miss it you’ll be kicking yourself.
Hell, if you miss it give me a call and I’ll come by and kick you too.
Inner City Arts
720 Kohler Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Performances: Sept.13 – Nov. 9
Thursdays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; Nov. 6
Fridays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 3, 10. 17, 24, 31; Nov. 7
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25; Nov. 1, 8
Sundays at 3 p.m: Sept. 28; Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26; Nov, 2, 9
General admission: $34
Students with valid ID: $30
Recommended for mature audiences only: strong language, nudity and adult themes.