Spring Awakening: Awake and Sign

When Spring Awakening first came out, I was a teenager in high school. My mom and I heard great things about the show, but as I was at the awkward phase of not wanting to spend a few hours sitting next to my mom while watching actors my own age experience sexual awakenings, we never saw it on Broadway. Two years ago, a production played in a community theater that my mom went to go see with some of her friends. She loved it so much, she saw it a second time with me in tow the following weekend. I bought her the soundtrack, where she complained that the Broadway original cast wasn’t as good as the community theater production we saw. I’ve also made my mom sit through  multiple seasons of Switched at Birth, so when I heard that Deaf West and Michael Arden were bringing Spring Awakening back to Broadway, I knew it was a must-see event in my household.

To say that the revival is brilliant is an understatement. Taking an already great show and adding the world of Deaf culture is inspired and yet seems like such an obvious choice. There are so many moments that using Deaf actors really enhances the show’s material and adds extra layers to the storyline and character arcs. I’ve often remarked how so many of Steven Sater’s lyrics are so poetic, so to see the artistry of Emmy nominated (and future Tony nominee?) Spencer Liff’s choreography mixed with sign language was just extraordinary. The production itself was beautiful. I loved how they incorporated text projections it’s the tiny things like font changes for different characters that make you realize how thought-out every moment of brilliance was. I will be okay if Michael Arden decides never to act again if it means he’ll continue putting on inspired productions like this.

Despite having 25 actors making their Broadway debut with the production, the cast is full of superstars. In particular, the trio of should be award-nominated Melchior, Wendla, and Moritz, Austin McKenize, Sandra Mae Frank/Katie Boeck, and Daniel Durant/Alex Boniello were extraordinary and all left me devastated. It’s a shame that a cast recording will never be able to capture the magic that happens on the Brooks Atkinson stage. While I’m glad the production just announced a two-week extension, I truly hope it moves theaters to become an open-ended run because I need to see the show at least six more times and everyone should see this show to be a better individual. I often think of Broadway as the height of art and culture in New York, even though it’s still a business trying to make money at the end of the day. There are some shows that are a great time at the theater, but it’s true art like this production of Spring Awakening that makes you think and questions things while staying with you long after the show ends. A week later, I’m still thinking about the production, and I’m itching to go back to see it again.

There are so many brilliant little moments in the show that highlight the Deaf world: Ilse’s parting words to Moritz said behind his back, so he doesn’t realize she has left; the white light that envelopes all sound after “Don’t Do Sadness;” hearing actors covering their mouths while singing “blah blahs” during “Totally F****ed;”  the doctor requesting a private word with Frau Bergmann. It are these moments that make it seem like Spring Awakening was written with Deaf actors in mind. I feel like every other production I’ll see of Spring Awakening using just hearing actors will feel empty and incomplete.

I love that the “Voice of X” weren’t just voices for the sake of the hearing audiences, but the character’s internal beings personified. They didn’t just provide the voice, but were a separate character, a friend, confidante, secret-keeper, sounding board, the physical representation of an internal happy dance. And they weren’t just representations of their inner selves, but kick-ass musicians and rock stars at that. And the idea of leaving your voice behind is such a powerful image and concept. Bravo, Michael Arden, bravo. Any time a Deaf actor pushed away their character voice to open their own mouth and real voice was such a powerful punch in the gut.

This is one of the most diverse casts assembled on Broadway. In addition to all the Deaf actors finally getting their chance on the big stage, the cast also includes the most visible plus sized actress in Hollywood, a cancer patient currently undergoing treatment (continue to kick cancer’s ass Krysta Rodriguez, because you slayed me in the role of Ilse), and the first wheelchair-bound actor to appear on Broadway. That statistic absolutely boggles my mind, but congratulations to Ali Stroker for making history and blending in so seamlessly that will hopefully open the doors for more in the future. If that wasn’t enough, I happened to attend TDF’s Audio Described Performance, which meant that many audience members were also vision-impaired, so it was a the most inclusive audience I have ever been a part of.

As for awards season, I know it’s very early in the 2015-2016 season and everyone is betting on a Hamilton sweep, but if there is any justice in the world, Spring Awakening will be a force to be reckoned with, starting with Best Revival. I truly hope Michael Arden gives Thomas Kail a run for his money for Best Director, because this interpretation of Spring Awakening is just utterly brilliant and I fear no other production will ever live up to this one. I would be shocked if Ben Stanton doesn’t win for his Lighting Design. And it’s a shame that Sound Design hasn’t been reinstated because it’s shows like this that make you truly appreciate how integral Sound Design is to a show. To Gareth Owen: you win the Tony of my heart.

I would be remiss if I didn’t single out Andy Mientus for helping to develop the show and for being a hilarious Hanschen. I like this new trend of his character staying  alive at the conclusion of the show!

Finally, to the Deaf actors: Thank you. When the lights go dark or you leave the stage and are unable to see the audience, I hope you all realize how much the audience is cheering for you. Not just a polite clap, but a raucous applause filled with whoops and hollers. It seems unfair that you miss it and are unable to experience just how appreciative and generous the audience is for your performances. I hope that you can all find other projects worthy of all your talents. You’re all superstars in the making. Even if Spring Awakening closes on schedule in January, I hope you’ll all be back soon. Broadway is a better place because of your presence.

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Bring Him Home (Back to Broadway)

Les Miserables is the show that made me fall in love with musicals. I don’t remember if it’s the first show I ever saw, but it’s definitely the one I’ve seen the most. I grew up with the 10th Anniversary Concert DVD in the days before DVRs, when if there was nothing on TV, we would pop in Les Miz. I listened to the soundtrack (on cassette tape!) on repeat for years, and even had to dig out the tape player after Tom Hooper’s movie version came out. Growing up, I never thought anyone would ever come close to Colm Wilkinson’s Valjean, but when I saw the Les Miz revival last spring, Ramin Karimloo made me question my undying belief in the magic of Wilkinson.

Les Miz is the kind of show that can do no wrong in my eyes, but the vocal prowess of Karimloo made me want to return to the show immediately after seeing it. When my cousin suggested going to Karimloo’s last show, I was immediately on board. I was nervous how the untimely death of Kyle Jean-Baptiste would affect Karimloo’s last performance (it was also the last show for Samantha Hill, who has also been in the show since the beginning in Toronto with Karimloo, and Erika Henningsen) and the show as a whole, but I think they found a good balance. The show is an emotional rollercoaster to begin with, and certain moments had extra weight in light of the tragedy. “Bring Him Home,” had an additional intensity as you think about Karimloo singing about being willing to die to save the life of a young man who has a life full of promise ahead of him. (Full disclosure: I wept the first time I heard Karimloo sing it in rehearsal footage from Toronto that I watched while browsing the internet, not thinking that the song would affect me given I hadn’t committed two hours on the plot and character development.) Chris McCarrell (a lovely Marius) blew out his candle and pointed up to the heavens at the end of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in an already heartbreaking performance. And during the curtain call, Karimloo wore a black armband and pointed to the sky, a classy move to acknowledge the passing of his colleague and friend on his own big day.

I’ve never been part of a monumental Broadway performance such as an opening, first day, or last performance before, and given how amazing Karimloo is, it was no surprise that the audience was boisterous and invested in his performance. However, the crowd went wild after every Valjean song, to the point where they covered up Karimloo’s beautiful vibrato as he showed off his incredible breath support. It was disappointing that in the crowd’s excitement, they overpowered Karimloo’s last notes in practically every song. It is also jarring for a prayer-like song like “Bring Him Home” to end in a prolonged standing ovation filled with whoops and cheers. While Karimloo was certainly deserving of that, it’s odd to have such a quiet reflective scene met with such boisterous applause. Also if given the chance, why wouldn’t you want to hear every second of the voice of an angel?

The entire cast was extraordinary, and it’s a shame that this revival didn’t get to record a cast album. I mostly want it so I can continue listening to Karimloo’s outstanding voice, but the rest of the cast was amazing as well. Gavin Lee was one of the hammiest and funniest Thenardiers I’ve seen, who definitely lifted the mood and brought a lightness that was needed under the tragic circumstances. Brennyn Lark was an incredible Eponine who delivered an amazing “On My Own.” And Wallace Smith in his revolutionary wig reminded me of Mark from The Roots, which was pretty awesome, if slightly jarring.

Karimloo had an extra intensity and urgency to his performance, which made his singing voice all the more lovely. I don’t know how he manages to have such beautiful vibrato and a growl-like intensity within the same song, but he pulls it off with aplomb. And you could tell he was having fun during his final performance when he experienced a blip with the doll he gave Young Cosette. It’s the little moments that make you treasure the beauty of live theater. Karimloo has one of the most extraordinary voices on Broadway today, and when I saw the show last year, I understood why everyone was clamoring to get him to Broadway. In one of the most spectacular Broadway debuts, I was disappointed when he lost the Tony Award to Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is a role that requires a different kind of intensity and stamina. While Karimloo heads to Japan to continue his musical theater world domination, I truly hope he comes back to Broadway soon. It’s nice to have an Iranian play one of the most beloved leading men in musical theater, and I can’t wait until he treads the boards in New York again.