Music by Duncan Sheik

Book and Lyrics Steven Sater

Directed by Michael Arden

Choreographed by Spencer Liff

Unusual even for a modern musical, SPRING AWAKENING takes a candid look at subjects like underage sex (both gay and straight), unplanned pregnancies, backdoor abortions, suicide, masturbation, and sadomasochism. Thankfully, though, the show isn’t content merely to score points by breaking taboos.

Playwright Frank Wedekind, ahead of his time, had a keen understanding of the cadences of teenage speech and the conflicting priorities that accompany adolescence. Wedekind had an axe to grind against the moral hypocrisy of his day, and his cautionary tale hinges on the dangers of denying young people crucial knowledge. Yet even in our information-glutted epoch, its un-sanitized, compassionate portrayal of troubled youth remains relevant.

In a rural town in 19th Century Germany, boys and girls are educated separately. As puberty begins to alter their bodies and activate their imaginations, the kids begin searching for answers as to what happens next. Receiving little help from their stern teachers and puritanical parents, they turn to the only adults who can help: Goethe, Shakespeare, and a few medical books that explain anatomy. Melchior (Austin P. McKenzie), is a bit better better off than his peers. He does well in school and his mother (Marlee Matlin) encourages him to read what he likes. His less fortunate friend Moritz (Daniel N. Durant, voiced by Alex Boniello) is a dismal student whose domineering father (Russell Harvard) makes it clear that failure is not an option. Martha (Treshelle Edmond/Kathryn Gallagher) lives in an abusive home from which she is too young to escape. Wendla Bergmann (Sandra Mae Fran, voiced by Katie Boeck), rapidly budding into womanhood, can no longer be the little girl her doting mother (Camryn Manheim) wants her to be. Her curiosity, like a wound, worsens when ignored. Ilse (Krysta Rodriguez) has managed to free herself from parental domination— only to eke out a squalid existence among a band of libertines known as the town’s “artist colony”. Only Hanschen (Andy Mientus) seems to know who he is and what to do about it. He boldly approaches another boy, Ernst (Joshua Castille /Van Hughes in for Daniel David Stewart), who, as it turns out, returns the attraction. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for this tidal wave of libidinous energy to clash with the strict moral framework of the village. Focused on propriety over empathy, the adults ineptly attempt to regain control. Their efforts result in a tragic peripeteia, and very innocence they purport to be protecting is shattered by the unintended consequences of their actions.

Transferred from Deaf West Theater in Los Angeles, this lively revival features an eager, charismatic young cast that minimizes the story’s melodramatic elements and highlights its honesty, humor and tenderness. Seamlessly synchronized, the ensemble consists of both hearing and deaf performers.  The deaf actors use American Sing Language to articulate the dialogue and lyrics, while their voices are provided by hearing counterparts. In many cases, the sign language itself becomes a kind of dance, with active hands that reach, caress and thrust to give inflection to the text.

The talent and enthusiasm of the actors is, in fact, so infectious that it’s easy to overlook the production’s main weakness: its score. Reflective of composer Duncan Sheik’s pop-radio background, the show’s musical style seems out of place in Wilhelmine Germany. Anachronisms, of course, can work in musical theater (the music of Fifth Century England didn’t sound much like the score of CAMELOT). But a score should always encapsulate the story’s theme. Rather than a generic idea of teen angst, a more effective choice would be to find a musical metaphor for the conflict between the strict formality of outdated customs and the discordant stirrings of the children’s psyches.

Still, if the songs don’t quite embody the dangerous sexuality that animates Wedekind’s script, the spirit of the original is well represented by Sater’s lean book and by Director Michael Arden’s sensitive direction. Lighting designer Ben Stanton evokes the rapidly-shifting moods and hues of a world seen through adolescent eyes.

SPRING AWAKENING continues through Jan 24, 2016 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: 877-250-2929

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