Saturday, October 31, 2015
Here’s a stylishly impeccable revival of A.R. Gurney’s whimsical tale of a man in mid-life crisis, whose job has become routine, after his children have left the nest. He develops an overly fond attachment to a dog he picks up in Central Park and which soon comes between him and his English teacher wife.
Matthew Broderick is perfectly cast as the clueless Greg, another of those endearing nebbish characters he does so well, and Julie White has just the right mixture of wariness and empathy as the increasingly frustrated wife Kate. Annaleigh Ashford surpasses her delightful work in “Kinky Boots” and “You Can’t Take It With You” as the titular anthropomorphized pooch. It’s a tremendously physical part which she executes with the dexterity of an accomplished dancer – whether angrily lashing out at a cat, lusting for a male dog when she’s in heat, whimpering in discomfort after being spayed, or bolding nuzzling a matron’s crotch – and her delivery of Sylvia’s dialogue (yes, this pooch talks) is spot-on perfect.
Robert Sella provides more deft comic relief in three roles: Tom, another obsessive dog enthusiast in the park, Phyllis, an upper crust friend of Kate’s from Vassar days, and Leslie, an ambiguously gendered therapist, though he’s perhaps a bit too over-the-top in the last two portrayals.
The setting remains 1995 -- when the play was first produced by Manhattan Theatre Club with Sarah Jessica Parker (Mrs. Matthew Broderick) as Sylvia -- and indeed there are nostalgic references to then-current personalities like Bella Abzug and Kitty Carlisle Hart and others no longer on the New York scene.
For all its considerable appeal (and Daniel Sullivan’s assured direction keeps the fable-like tone of the piece always on the right track), the play does at times feel a stretch for a full evening, with just a few longueurs in the second act. Still, Gurney’s piece is undeniably well constructed, with the playwright scoring valid points about loneliness and the need to connect with others, even with a dog as the conduit. The lovely interlude when Greg, Kate, and Sylvia sing “Every Time We Say Goodbye” at a pivotal emotional moment is most touchingly done.
Ann Roth’s costumes are just right for these prototypical WASPY Gurney characters. David Rockwell’s gorgeously verdant, skyline-backed Central Park setting – and the inset of Greg and Kate’s well-heeled apartment – expertly lighted by Japhy Weideman, are a pleasure throughout the evening.
At the end, you may find yourself slowing your exit to watch a projected doggie gallery (described in the Playbill) –- the “Friends of Sylvia” -- after the curtain calls. A nice touch.
(The Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street; www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
Photo: Joan Marcus
Friday, October 30, 2015
Playwright Stephen Karams’s follow-up to his roundly praised “Sons of the Prophet” is another sensitively written, finely acted domestic drama, this one approaching the surreal as the humorous elements give way to something darker, in the both figurative and literal senses.
Eric and Deirdre Blake (the oh-so-fine Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell) and their lesbian daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) have arrived from Pennsylvania along with Eric’s dementia-afflicted mother “Momo” (Lauren Klein) to share Thanksgiving at the new tenement apartment of their daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Rich (Arian Moayed).
Eric seems strangely preoccupied from the moment they walk in. The apartment, though a spacious ground floor duplex (the second floor below ground), has ominous sounds (enormous thuds from above, the compactor, the laundry room), and as if that weren’t enough, the light bulbs begin blowing out one by one.
Furthermore, though the general tone is convivial with plenty of humorous banter (and, at times, the play is laugh-out-loud funny), little by little we learn that all is not truly well with any of these characters, as one by one, Karam reveals the problems — financial and emotional — beneath the holiday cheer.
Karam’s dialogue is wonderfully naturalistic; he uncannily captures the rhythms of how families talk (and much of the dialogue realistically overlaps), while subtext abounds. This cast is marvelously adept at conveying the surface situation and all the underlying conflicts.
The tonal shift from naturalism to the surreal, unnerving though it is when it comes, doesn’t come as a total surprise given the hints Karam has given us throughout the evening, and the skill with which ace director Joe Mantello has orchestrated the playwright’s text.
David Zinn’s two-tiered set design brilliantly conveys the unease we are meant to feel from the start. Justin Townsend’s all-important lighting, and Fitz Patton’s sound effects all contribute to the increasingly spooky ambience.
The play, incidentally, derives its title from something Richard says about his favorite comic book in which it’s the monsters relate scary stories about us. “The horror stories for the monsters are all about humans,” he tells the bemused family. But, as events in “The Humans” play out, the symbolism of that image proves unnervingly true.
(Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org)
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Director/choreographer Randy Skinner’s production of the 1968 Off-Broadway charmer – a delicious take-off on those Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s – has been accorded an utterly delightful, ultra-stylish revival.
One might have thought that all these decades later, audiences who could actually remember the movies being spoofed would have largely died off, devotees of TCM notwithstanding, and that the whole enterprise might feel hopelessly dated, but not so. And I’d venture to say that even for audiences unfamiliar with the genre, “Dames at Sea” will provide bountiful entertainment.
This is the show that put Bernadette Peters on the map. She played Ruby (as in Keeler), the small-town girl who lands a part in the chorus in a Broadway show the day she arrives in New York, and by evening finds herself replacing the temperamental star. Peters had just appeared in a similar Hollywood spoof, Robert Dahdah and Mary Boylan’s charming “Curly McDimple,” playing the Alice Faye prototype. And Dahdah was, in fact, the first director of “Dames at Sea” in its earliest incarnation.
Eloise Kropp, a completely different physical type than Peters (in fact looking rather disconcertingly like Cherry Jones), takes the role here and makes the part her own. And the other roles have also been cast to perfection. There’s Cary Tedder as Dick (Powell), the small-town sailor who loves Ruby, and also happens to be a songwriter with Broadway aspirations. Mara Davi is Joan (Blondell), the good-hearted gal who befriends Ruby. Danny Gardner is Lucky, the sailor sweet on Joan. All of them are terrific dancers.
John Bolton, channeling Warner Baxter in “42nd Street,” is the Type A director ceaselessly yelling at Ruby to pick up her game, go onstage and, eventually, save the show. He also doubles as the captain of the battleship where, with their theater victim to the wrecking ball, the musical must ingeniously relocate. And, above all, there’s Lesli Margherita as vain star Mona, milking every bit of show-stopping schmaltz out of her torchy “That Mister Man of Mine,” and later, hilariously channeling her inner South American in her second act duet with the equally droll Bolton on “The Beguine.”
You have to keep reminding yourself that there are only six performers on stage, so deftly is the show blocked. Skinner’s staging is endlessly inventive, honoring the simplicity of the original but adding plenty of 2015 panache to such numbers as “Raining in My Heart,” “Singapore Sue,” and “The Echo Waltz.”
Jonathan Tunick’s spot-on parodistic orchestrations (heard first on the cast recording, as the original production had only two piano accompaniment) have been augmented with fine vocal and dance arrangements by music director Rob Berman.
Though, in theory, Broadway would seem a reach for such an intimate show, Anna Louizos’s ingenious designs, David C. Woolard’s dazzling costumes, Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz’s cheerful lighting and the clean sound design by Scott Lehrer give it the requisite first-class production values for the Great White Way. The choice of the intimate Helen Hayes Theatre is, of course, another asset. The opening black and white Warner Brothers credits are a special delight.
It must be acknowledged that the original property – music by Jim Wise, and book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller – shows itself to be still very viable, and one admires anew its economical construction. So, too, the songs are perfect parodies of those Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs, but stand well on their own, too. The rapturous audience response at the end made me think that perhaps it’s time to bring back those other period genre spoofs “Little Mary Sunshine” and “The Boyfriend,” provided, that is, that they’d be in the same sort of accomplished hands as "Dames at Sea" is here.
(The Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W 44th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Saturday, October 24, 2015
You might imagine, from the sound of it, that this latest jukebox musical which has just opened on Theater Row – one culled from songs of the 1960s – is some small-scale rinky-dink affair. But you’d be way off-base, for director/choreographer James Walski’s psychedelic creation is, in fact, a surprisingly lavish, high-tech production that would visually hold its own just fine on a big Broadway stage.
And the cast of seven principals and an ensemble of more than double that figure in undeniably talented. But for all of that, the show is chilly, mechanical, and utterly impersonal even with its seemingly sure-fire hit parade of tunes ranging from “Windmills of Your Mind” to “Born to Be Wild.”
There’s no dialogue, but the more than two dozen songs are strung together to tell a sort of story. as Walski describes in a program note how the show’s central figure Caroline (Kelly Felthous) “falls down the rabbit hole and [takes] a magic mushroom.” The “dream” that follows has her falling in love with sensitive Adam (Austin Miller), marrying, and parting. Peter (Joey Calveri) bodypaints Crystal (Tara Palsha), suffers heartbreak and enlists in the army. Meanwhile, the very cool Jennifer (Dionne Figgins) auditions on a soundstage. And so on.
Laurie Wells is Angela (though, mind you, the character names mean little), and she gets to sing the serious ballads such as “Both Sides Now,” “Lover’s Concerto,” and “The Way of Love.” Her voice is rich and mellow, but there’s a generic quality to her vocals and all the others in the show, so we’re kept at an emotional distance.
Felthous, for her part, has a high, adenoidal voice that carries her through “Where the Boys Are” and “Downtown.” Miller gets the folksy ballads “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” While David Elder as George has such extroverted numbers as “It’s Not Unusual, ““The Girl from Ipanema” to “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Figgins stands out as especially dynamic from her entrance number “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” onward.
The orchestrations by Martyn Axe are strictly contemporary, and indeed the program tells us the “time” is “now” so this is the 1960s through a present-day filter. The arrangements are slickly professional, and I did enjoy the driving beat of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Nowhere to Run,” and some of the others. But in most instances, the integrity of the original tunes is coarsened.
But there’s no denying Walski’s choreography is quite dynamic, and sharply executed by the cast.
Robin Wagner and Walski’s set designs are always eye-filling and sometimes clever, such as the surfing backdrop for “Wipe Out” early in the show. Other times, they’re far too literal. “Moon River” is sung against a big full moon, and yup, the requisite shimmering river. “Up, Up and Away” is sung as a hot-air balloon is about to rise (and, of course, it does). “Downtown” plays out against a Times Square backdrop.
Gregg Barnes’ snazzy costumes manage to keep the men bare-chested and the women in provocative go-go girl attire.
The show originated in Osaka, and indeed, there was a profusion of Asian tourists in the lobby. The rest of the audience, at least those around me, were, shall we say, not the classiest, eating, talking, and texting throughout the two-act evening.
(Stage 42, formerly The Little Shubert Theater, 422 West 42nd St; Telecharge.com or
Photo: Matt Murphy
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Though Broadway’s “The Rothschilds” in 1970 was far from a megahit on the scale of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” nonetheless, the musical crafted by the team and book writer Sherman Yellen concerning the famous 19th century Jewish banking dynasty, ran for over 500 performances and earned nine Tony nominations, winning two, even as it failed to turn a profit.
But a smaller revamped version by the American Jewish Theater in 1990 enjoyed a successful run. And now, the York Theatre Company has mounted a 1995 Coconut Grove Playhouse version with some new songs and lyrics and more of a focus on patriarch Mayer Rothschild and his five sons. The second act love interest for son Nathan in London – played originally by Jill Clayburgh incidentally – has been scuttled along with other characters, and the piece now plays for about an hour and 50 minutes without intermission.
At nearly two hours, the show could frankly benefit from a break, but in its present form, under the direction of Jeffrey B. Moss, it’s never less than absorbing.
The ever-reliable and always excellent Robert Cuccioli – who played son Nathan in the AJT revival – now assumes creator Hal Linden’s role of Mayer, and gives a fine, committed portrayal, as Mayer vows that the walls of the ghetto will come down his lifetime, as he sings in his showstopping number. The sons – played by David Bryant Johnson, Jamie LaVerdiere, Nicholas Moniardo-Cooper, Curtis Wiley, and Christopher M. Williams – are a strong, diversified group, and blend powerfully on “Everything” wherein they assert they are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. Williams as principal son Nathan who’s sent to London to invest the money collected from Prince William’s debts does an especially credible job.
A very successful 1911 Carl Roessler play, “Die funf Frankfurter” as well as a 1932 Hungarian operetta on the subject gave more prominence to the role of Mayer’s wife Gutele, and here, that part has been built up from the Broadway original, and is nicely played by Glory Crampton. Mark Pinter excels with three stylish portrayals (Prince William, Chancellor of the Exchkequer Herries, and Prince Metternich).
For all the care that has been lavished on this resurrection, it can’t be said the story is an intrinsically engaging as “Fiddler,” nor are the songs anywhere near as memorable. Still, Bock and Harnick were an outstanding team, and this is quality material.
The production is beautifully designed by York’s Producing Artistic Director James Morgan, with handsome costumes by Carrie Robbins. Music Supervisor Joseph Church’s chamber orchestrations, as played under the direction of Jeffrey Klitz, are quite lovely, though obviously no match for the lush Don Walker originals as heard on the original cast album.
(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, entrance on E. 54th Street, east of Lexington Avenue; 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org; through Nov. 8)
Photo: Eric Baiano
(L to R) Jamie LaVerdiere as Salomon, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Amshel, David Bryant Johnson as Jacob, Robert Cuccioli as Mayer, Curtis Wiley as Kalmann, and Christopher M. Williams as Nathan in “Rothschild & Sons” with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Sherman Yellen at York Theatre Company. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Gilbert & Sullivan’s ever popular comic opera was the second foray into the fabled duo’s work from the Collegiate Chorale (now known as MasterVoices). “The Mikado” in 2012 had been altogether superb, with maestro Ted Sperling’s impeccable musicianship leading the estimable Orchestra of St. Luke’s, a cast of solid Broadway pros with classical chops, and of course, the splendid Chorale itself. Together, they breathed fresh life into the venerable warhorse.
“The Pirates of Penzance” boasted many of the same virtues. Once again, Sperling’s musical finesse was unimpeachable, and he led the orchestra from the City Center pit, rather than onstage when at the Chorale’s regular Carnegie Hall venue. The overture, finely controlled, and building to its climax beautifully, got things off to a classy start.
The curtain rose to reveal the massive Chorale on their multi-tiered bleachers, while the costumed principals cavorted in front of them in a semi-staged presentation. Unlike Encores, which occupies the same stage, though, many in the cast were clingingly dependent on their books, and even so, went up on their lines far more than in past productions.
When casting was first announced, chief interest revolved around Deborah Voigt’s appearance as Ruth, and I’m happy to report she did a solid job, crisply articulating her lyrics and dialogue, showing her jolly comic skills, and of course, singing in fine style. She and the rest of the cast eschewed English accents which, in itself, was acceptable under these relatively informal circumstances.
Phillip Boykin who recently opened “On the Town” each night with his warmly sonorous “I Feel I’m Not out of Bed Yet,” was the Pirate King. Though he smartly lightened his bass voice, and sang pleasingly, this was not your traditional Pirate King, but one strictly in the zany Kevin Kline mode.
And indeed unfortunate remnants of Joseph Papp’s successful 1981 pop version, which starred Kline, kept cropping up here, a far cry from Mike Leigh’s recent immaculate staging at the English National Opera in London which utilized traditional costuming and absolutely pure classical singing bringing out the often underrated beauty of Sullivan’s music. And none of the comedy was shortchanged either.
Mabel and Frederic’s “Ah, Leave Me Not to Pine,” for instance, was particularly exquisite there, but considerably less so here in the hands of Julia Udine’s accomplished, if overly bright-toned soprano, and Hunter Parrish’s dramatically and vocally pallid Frederic played very much in the pop mode as performed by Rex Smith (and the other pop singers who followed) for Papp.
The excellent Betsy Wolfe and Montego Glover were directed to give Mabel’s sisters Edith and Kate that same contemporary edge, Wolfe had several intentionally strident moments which were more irritating than funny.
Still, Udine’s coloratura showpiece “Poor Wandering One” was quite accomplished vocally, even as the direction (by Sterling) poked fun at the operatic excesses. (Frederic covered his ears in mock discomfort at one point.)
The hugely talent Douglas Hodge, whose directorial talents are currently on view in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” at the Roundabout, was a predictably accomplished Major General, playing with an almost Frank Morgan-like sense of befuddlement at the absurdity of some of the words he was singing, as he spoke/sang his signature patter song.
Another definite plus was David Garrison’s Sergeant of Police, a role he actually played in the Papp production, and sounding remarkably unchanged after all these years. Zachary James was a fine Samuel in a mostly traditional mode.
The grand “Hail, Poetry” chorus rang forth gloriously with the MasterVoices really showing their mettle, as they also did in the first act finale and the other big choral moments.
Much of the stage blocking and movement (Gustavo Zajac was choreographer) was amusing and original, but some over-the-top, and again, too derivative of Papp. Though the production was visually spare, David Korins designed a nice playing area. Frances Aronson’s lighting was ever helpful in delineating the action, and costume “consultant” Tracy Christensen’s contributions were traditionally eye pleasing.
The audience rewarded the performance I attended (the second of two) with warm applause and a standing ovation, so for all my quibbles, it must be reported that a good time was had by all.
The performances were dedicated to the late actor Roger Rees, who frequently lent his directorial savvy to MasterVoices performances, a very nice and deserved touch.
(MasterVoices, New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street; NYCityCenter.org; October 15 and 16 only)
Photo: Eric Baiano
Friday, October 16, 2015
What a pleasure to see stars James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson operating at the top of their nuanced, comedic and altogether endearing game!
Casting them as the alienated-from-society nursing home loners in D.L. Coburn’s 1977’s Pulitzer winner – the first Broadway revival since Julie Harris and Charles Durning in 1997 – was, as it turns out, a masterstroke. This is, as they say, a star vehicle, and these two consummate pros more than fit the bill, as cannily directed by Leonard Foglia.
Fonsea (Tyson) enters the play in tears, though we don’t really understand her issues till later in the play. She meets grumpy long-time resident Weller (Jones) on the porch, and soon reveals she has diabetes, while he quips that he’s merely suffering from the malady known as extreme old age. Weller convinces the disingenuously reticent Fonsea to join him in a hand of gin rummy.
Though she claims ignorance of the game, she beats him at the game straightaway, and then proceeds to do so again and again during the course of the play. Her easy triumphs unleash Weller’s not inconsiderable temper, a pattern that runs through all their subsequent games. Fonsia will say she’s had enough, and then relent for another hand. Throughout all of this, they share their backgrounds, nurture a growing fondness (which peaks when Fonsia persuades him to join her in a brief dance), and fight like the dickens, while the sad reality of their respective situations comes to light.
Jones’s Weller is all grumpy bluster, but he shows us the compassionate side that coexists with the volcanic outbursts. Tyson’s Fonsea is smart as a whip, and cute as all get-out, but reveals the vulnerability and pain beneath the assured demeanor. Tyson’s easy-going victories at cards are a non-stop delight, as is Jones’ escalating incredulity and raging temper.
Much has been made of the stars’ ages – Tyson (90) and Jones (84) -- but their performances are, in fact, as vigorous as any, and they deliver their copious dialogue sharply, no mean feat, since each hand of gin is so very similar to the one that comes before it. David Van Tieghem’s sound design is clean and natural.
You can still see Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn’s indelible original performances on YouTube in a fuzzy black and white print. And it's clear that Jones and Tyson more than live up to those legendary creators.
Riccardo Hernandez has designed a characterful cluttered porch setting strewn with old furniture, wheelchairs, and the like (along with the stars’ very apt costumes), and it’s been warmly lighted by Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer.
(Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or Telecharge.com)
Sunday, October 11, 2015
The high-tech, abstract setting designed by Christine Jones (and lighted in kind by Japhy Weideman) to frame the latest revival of Harold Pinter’s 1971 puzzler is visually striking, to be sure, but rather off-putting, too. The action plays out against giant cyclorama of concentric circles and there’s also a slab of ice, some jolting strobes, and an unworldly score by Thom Yorke.
Still, none of these extraneous touches detract from three really superb performances from Clive Owen (in his Broadway debut), Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly, all of whom make this production so worth seeing.
Owen and Reilly are Deeley and Kate, a married couple living in a remote farmhouse. They await the arrival of Kate’s former roommate (Best) from years before. The macho, increasingly menacing Deeley questions the nature of the women's friendship, but the passive Kate’s answers are frustratingly enigmatic.
Soon the glamorous Anna appears (stylishly bedecked in Constance Hoffman’s duds). Incidents from the past – which emerge in contradictory versions – are explored, as Deeley and Anne soon seem to be vying for Kate in a kinky power play.
It's soon apparent that Pinter is playing his usual tricks, and the facts will remain elusive. Has Anna, in fact, died, and is this all an illusion? After all, we see her onstage even before she actually arrives with a torrent of words. Identities are so blurred, we are even led to wonder if Anna and Kate might perhaps be two sides of the same person?
I can’t say I remember the nuances of the original Broadway production (with its stellar cast of Robert Shaw, Rosemary Harris, and Mary Ure), but the setting was certainly more conventional, and the delicious Pinteresque pauses were all characteristically in place. There seem to be far fewer of those now, a curious trend with recent Pinter mountings, including the recent Broadway revivals of “The Homecoming” and “No Man’s Land.” Perhaps it’s that streamlining that causes this production to clock in at a mere 65 minutes.
Still, as directed by actor Douglas Hodge – no slouch at playing Pinter himself (I recall an excellent “Caretaker” in London in which he starred) – the drama, however mysterious, grips.
(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through November 29)
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell are perfectly matched as May and Eddie in Manhattan Theatre Club’s riveting revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play. (Director Daniel Aukin’s sharp production was first mounted by the Williamstown Theatre Festival last year.)
May is living in a bleak motel (astutely designed by Dane Laffrey) “on the edge of the Mojave Desert” when long-time cowboy lover Eddie returns with a trailer of horses out back. May wants no part of him, as she knows the tiresome pattern of Eddie’s abandonment will simply repeat itself. But Eddie persists and May waves between her new resolve and old passion. Adding to her resentment against Eddie is the (offstage) return of a vengeful lady known as The Countess with whom, May is certain, Eddie carried on an affair. May is waiting to be picked up for a date by good-natured if slow-on-the-uptake Martin (Tom Pelphrey) with whom she thinks she might just be able to start afresh. Observing the sordid action from the sidelines is a mysterious Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) who exists in Eddie and May’s imagination but whose actual connection to the embattled couple is eventually revealed.
Justin Townsend’s harsh lighting perfectly complements Laffrey’s soulless room.
The galvanic Arianda (very sexy in a skin-tight red dress) and simmering Rockwell are perfectly cast in these mercurial parts, and deliver the requisite passion and heated arguments as the script dictates. Rockwell wields a mean lasso, too. They are finely supported by Pelphrey and Weiss.
I hadn’t actually encountered the play since the original New York production where I saw an excellent young Bruce Willis as Eddie, but Shepard’s dialogue for this modern-day Greek tragedy still crackles. The play runs 75 minutes without intermission, and grips from first moment to last.
(MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; 212-239-6200, online by visiting www.Telecharge.com)
Saturday, October 3, 2015
I must confess that I admired more than loved “Spring Awakening” in its 2007 Broadway premiere, and really didn’t care for Deaf West Theatre’s 2003 revival of “Big River.” So the prospect of Deaf West’s limited revival of Duncan Shiek and Steven Sater’s musical of version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 expressionist play was less than a welcome prospect.
But how wrong my disinterest turned out to be! For this is a truly wondrous production, gorgeously staged by Michael Arden (and choreographed by Spencer Liff), and most feelingly acted and sung.
The combination of hearing and deaf actors is not only seamlessly executed but a brilliant dramatic device, and gives the work more texture than before. And despite the presence of so many deaf actors, “Spring Awakening” proves as rich an aural as it is a visual experience, thanks to an ingenious use of double casting, and the fine musical direction of Jared Stein.
The story charts the lives of the disaffected youth of Wedekind’s time, misunderstood at home, and stifled by a repressive environment in school. The four central characters are Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank), the sexually innocent daughter of Frau Bergmann (Camryn Manheim); Melchior (the hearing Austin P. McKenzie), the charismatic boy she falls in love with; Moritz (Daniel N. Durant), a troubled young man having difficulties with his studies; and Ilse (Krysta Rodriguez), an abused girl who now lives in an artist colony. The pregnancy resulting from Wendla and Melchior making love in a hayloft propels the second act to tragedy.
Wenda (played luminously by the deaf Frank), is spoken and sung by Katie Boeck who follows her like a caring (or, at times, critical) alter ego. But so compelling is Frank’s miming and signing and Boeck's voice that the performance, like all the others in the show, registers as one.
So, too, Durant plays his confusion most convincingly, and when Moritz must tell his father (Russell Harvard) that he has failed in school, the entire scene is played in silence using only sign language with the dialogue projected on a digital blackboard behind the stage. Powerful stuff. Elsewhere Moritz’s voice is articulated skillfully by Alex Boniello.
In other instances, it’s often difficult to see who’s speaking for whom, but the effect isn’t at all jarring or disconcerting. The hearing actors who double the deaf ones are as unobtrusive as the puppeteers in “War Horse.” After a while, one forgets they are there. And at key points, the deaf actors emit a guttural cry or some other sound that is dramatically apt and extremely poignant.
Patrick Page and Marlee Matlin excel in variety of other roles, he most prominently as one of the stern schoolmasters, she as Melchior’s mother.
Ben Stanton’s lighting is stunning, and Dane Laffrey’s multi-level set gives scope to the action. Laffrey also designed the first-rate costumes.
The program notes explain the plight of the deaf at that time in Germany and the ban on using sign language. Though this is not made part of the show's plot per se, the knowledge of this fact combined with the plight of the teens in the story adds undeniable resonance.
At the end, the audience gave a standing ovation, as much to show the deaf members of the cast their admiration as to acknowledge a genuine artistic triumph.
(Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.; Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929; through January 24)