For nearly a quarter century, Deaf West Theatre has been pioneering opportunities for deaf actors and audiences to share theater experiences, incorporating sign language and projected text directly into stagings of popular plays and, yes, musicals. With “Spring Awakening,” which marks the North Hollywood-based theater company’s second major Broadway transfer (following 2003’s “Big River”), the company goes as far as to incorporate the deaf dimension into the plot of the hit musical, transforming a show about the explosive consequences of denying sex ed to a conservative late-19th-century German community into a critique of deaf education policy at the same time.
As such, Deaf West awakens something new in the show, which is not so much a revival as it is a reinvention — although for the next 15 weeks of its limited run at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, the house should remain nearly packed with those happy to find the Duncan Sheik-scored rock opera back on Broadway in any form. Deaf performers “sing” via sign language, their graceful hand movements (choreographed by Spencer Liff) a natural extension of Bill T. Jones’ original choreography, while a handful of gifted young vocalists belt their lines from the shadows.
The method works intuitively enough, considering that much of Steven Sater’s book and lyrics — adapted from German writer Frank Wedekind’s controversial and oft-censored 1891 play — were projections of the teen characters’ interior angst to begin with. Now, the publicly muted characters have on-stage doppelgangers to give full voice to their feelings. Director Michael Arden introduces this device from the first scene, as Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank) studies herself in the mirror, passing an electric guitar through to her speaking/singing counterpart (Katie Boeck) on the other side in exchange for the baby-doll dress that kicks off her first number, “Mama Who Bore Me.”
Arden hasn’t strayed all that far from Michael Mayer’s 2006 staging, doubling the number of adult actors to accommodate both deaf and speaking actors (meaning we get Marlee Matlin and Camryn Manheim with one ticket), but otherwise sticking relatively close to the show as audiences know and love it. Even within the familiar format, Mayer gives things a whole new focus by making nearly half of the show’s adolescent ensemble deaf, their characters directly impacted by the consequences of 1880’s Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf.
That symposium, disproportionately stacked to favor champions of the oralist teaching method, passed a series of resolutions attempting to ban sign language from schools, insisting that students instead practice lip-reading and speech. In a show that had previously been somewhat simplistic in the way it treated its most tragic characters as victims, this added historical wrinkle lends real heft.
Suicidal young Moritz Stiefel is failed at school not out of simple caprice, but rather in a genuine bias against deaf pupils, given stern voice by Patrick Page and severe countenance by Russell Harvard (recently seen as a deaf hit man in TV’s “Fargo”). Likewise, in sexual encounters that now feel less like outright violations, Wendla and Ernst (Joshua Castille) are deaf students whose desires are now being heard for the first time by their respective partners, the progressive Melchior Gabor (Austin P. McKenzie) and predatory Hanschen (Andy Mientus of “Smash”).
McKenzie, a baby-faced but otherwise fully-fledged breakout who will appear onscreen in next year’s “Speech & Debate,” comes to the role with a particularly unique background, having studied to be a sign-language interpreter. His offstage empathy for the deaf community is reflected in Melchior’s character, who defies his teachers not only by writing Moritz an incriminating 15-page guide to the birds and bees, but by acknowledging his deaf classmate as an equal — a sensitivity he extends to Wendla in his family’s hayloft. Whereas the school was merely repressive with regard to its pupils’ sexual desires in earlier versions, now this institution is a deservedly detestable example of the sort of prejudicial selection practices that turned fatal several decades later in Germany.
With its brazen treatment of such then-shocking subjects as puberty, pregnancy and abortion, paired with the almost fetishistic regard in which it holds its short-pants-clad ensemble, “Spring Awakening” has always stood in complicated defiance of both Teutonic severity and the lofty Aryan ideal. Hanschen remains the show’s Hitler-youthiest character, an oily, Draco Malfoy-esque manipulator (who gets a clever sign-language assist during his masturbation scene), while the cast makes room for deaf, African-American actress Treshelle Edmond (sung by Kathryn Gallagher) and wheelchair-bound vocal powerhouse Ali Stroker (“Glee”).
“Spring Awakening” puts such inclusivity to thematic use while keeping the show’s rock-music energy high. For most of the show, the band remains integrated into the shadows of Dane Laffrey’s industrial-looking set, whose steel walls and rolling stairs look more like a 20th-century power station than a German boys’ school. But when necessary, the musicians aren’t afraid to run out into the audience, who won’t soon forget the sight of Matlin rocking an electric guitar in the boxed seats.