Monday, November 30, 2015

"Christmas in the Airwaves" at Lyric Arts

If today's snowstorm doesn't get you in the holiday spirit, Lyric Arts in charming downtown Anoka will! This year they commissioned a new holiday play, Christmas in the Airwaves, which premiered the week before Thanksgiving, and this weekend they open their "Mainly for Kids" (and grown-ups who can't get over their childhood obsession with all things Little House) production of A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas. I'll be visiting my friend Laura on Saturday, but first, let's return to the 1940s. A time when men went off to war, women stayed behind to run things (and sing harmony), and radio was king. It's in this idealized world of the '40s that our story takes place. It's Christmas 1944 in a small snowy Minnesota town, as we watch a live radio broadcast, along with the behind-the-scenes lives of the cast and crew of the show. This simple, sweet, charming story with lovely holiday and wartime music is as comforting as hot apple cider on a cold and snowy day.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"The Night Alive" at the Jungle Theater

The Night Alive is an odd little play. Which is really no surprise - it's Irish. No offense meant, I love all things Irish, including odd little Irish plays. I'm not quite sure what to make of Irish playwright Conor McPherson's newest work The Night Alive, now playing at the Jungle Theater, other that it's funny, tragic, and wholly engaging. This tale of a bunch of misfits in a run-down house in Dublin is brought to gritty life by an endlessly watchable five-person cast speaking with lovely Irish brogues (some more authentic than others) and the Jungle's usual perfection in design. I may have left the theater a little perplexed, but definitely with something to chew on.

"The Wizard of Oz" at Children's Theatre Company

Children's Theatre Company proves again and again that you don't need to be a child to enjoy a "children's show." Maybe it's because children are people just like grown-ups, and CTC treats them that way. Or maybe it's because we were all once children too. With their latest production of The Wizard of Oz, CTC reminds weary grown-ups what it is to experience the wonder and magic of childhood. They have brought one of the most iconic movies of all time to vivid life on stage. It's understandable why this show has a permanent place in their rotation - it's full of heart, color, wonderful music, and a beautiful message of home, family, self-discovery, and friendship. It's enough to restore your faith in humanity, at least for a moment. This so-called children's story is peppered with wisdom such as "It's always best to start at the beginning," "Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking," and "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, then I never really lost it to begin with." And if you don't tear up when Dorothy says her good-bye to her new friends in Oz, you might not have a soul.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"The Cocoanuts" at the Guthrie Theater

Not being familiar with the Marx Brothers, I didn't know what to expect from The Cocoanuts. In fact, when the Guthrie announced their season this spring, I didn't even know what it was (It's a musical? But I've never heard of it!). Turns out it's a little before my time. The 1925 Broadway musical was written for the Marx Brothers by George S. Kaufman, with music and lyrics by one of the best American songwriters, Irving Berlin. The musical was adapted into one of the first "talkies" in 1929, but has never been revived on Broadway, so I guess I can be forgiven for having never heard of it. Last year the Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiered a new adaptation of this 90-year-old musical (what the Marx Brothers have to do with Shakespeare, I don't know), and that's the production that opened at the Guthrie last weekend. The Guthrie's production features the same actors playing the three most famous Marx Brothers (but with our fabulous local actors taking over most of the rest of the roles), much of the same creative team, and a book that's been slightly tweaked to add in some Minnesota references. The result is a delightfully and ridiculously fun show that pulls out all the comedic stops to entertain the audience, the cast, and even the ushers. A good time was most definitely had by all.

Monday, November 23, 2015

"My Children! My Africa!" at Park Square Theatre

As My Children! My Africa! begins to unfold on Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage, there's a chance this might be a feel-good story about two young people of different race and socioeconomic status becoming friends and bonding over the love of learning. But this is 1985 South Africa at the height of Apartheid. That's not how this story goes. What unfolds instead is a tragic story oppression, rebellion, missed opportunities, lost life, and perseverance through it all. It's a powerful and heavy story, but heart-breakingly beautiful as delivered by this strong three-person cast under the co-direction of Jamil Jude and James A. Williams.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune" by Casting Spells Productions at the Minneapolis Theater Garage

A short order cook who is an ex-con and reads Shakespeare. A waitress who's given up her dream of being an actress and is afraid to hope for anything more in life. It may seem inevitable that these two NYC diner coworkers get together, but how it happens is a funny, sexy, awkward, bittersweet little dance in the two-person play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune. From the company that brought us the delightfully disgruntled princesses of Disenchanted comes a very different play, but maybe not so different as it at first seems. In just their second outing, Casting Spells Productions once again delivers a funny, risky, well-cast, and entertaining show. I look forward to seeing what spells they cast in the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Beautiful - The Carole King Musical" at the Orpheum Theatre

"You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart." The opening lyrics of prolific songwriter Carole King's "Beautiful" paint a pretty picture, but as we learn in the biographical jukebox musical of the same name, her real life wasn't always pretty. Pregnant and married at 17, divorced by 26, she still managed to become one of the most successful songwriters of the 20th Century with such well-known hits as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "You've Got a Friend," and "Natural Woman." Beautiful - The Carole King Musical tells Carole's life story as she finds her own voice, culminating in her Grammy-winning 1971 solo album Tapestry. Although it feels at times like a baby boomer tribute concert, Beautiful truly is just that - beautiful - as it celebrates this remarkable woman's talents and life story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Equus" by Theatre Coup D'Etat at SPACE

A 17-year-old boy blinds six horses. This true event inspired English playwright Peter Shaffer to write the 1973 play Equus, creating characters and a story to explain how and why this might have happened. The result is a fascinating exploration of religion, idolatry, growing up, the child-parent relationship, and the role of therapy. I had never seen the play before (in fact all I knew about it is that it's the play in which Daniel Radcliffe was naked on Broadway), so I went to see Theatre Coup D'Etat's production with no expectations or prejudgments. I found the play to be thought-provoking, disturbing, and engrossing, as seen through this excellent production with a strong cast anchored by two terrific performances.

Monday, November 16, 2015

"C.L.U." by Collide Theatrical Dance Company at the Ritz Theater

My grandparents' attic contained many delights for a kid, particularly a collection of vintage board games from the '50s and '60s that my aunties used to play. My cousins and I spent hours playing Risk, Masterpiece, MonopolyLife, and one of our favorites, Clue. Sometimes we'd even get the adults to join in. I took very detailed notes on my Clue sheet with my own system of shorthand. It was such delicious mysterious fun! Collide Theatrical Dance Company's new original piece C.L.U. captures that fun and mysterious spirit. Created by Artistic Director and Choreographer Regina Peluso along with new collaborator, Director Joshua Campbell, C.L.U. is a fun and entertaining evening of music, dance, and melodrama.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Sister Act" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

While I was off in NYC seeing a bunch of Broadway musicals last week, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres opened a new show. I missed the Sister Act press night (the best press night in town), but they kindly let me attend last night - on my birthday! (I can now cross the Chan emcee wishing me a happy birthday off my bucket list.) Director Michael Brindisi has once again brought us a polished production, and one that's a lot of fun and also has a beautiful heart, I enjoyed it as much as anything I saw on Broadway last week. This is a relatively short run for the Chan (just four months), so make your plans now so you don't miss this wonderful and heart-warming musical. If you need more reasons to see it, I've got ten - read on.

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Doubt" by New Epic Theater at the Lab Theater

Friends, I know that there are a lot of theater companies in the Twin Cities, so many that it's hard to keep track of them all and impossible to see them all. But you would be wise to take note of New Epic Theater. With just their second production outside of the Fringe Festival and their first full season of programming, they've already established themselves as one to watch with smart, intense, risk-taking, aesthetically beautiful productions. Their new production of John Patrick Stanley's 2005 Tony-winner Doubt re-imagines the new classic with inventive staging that brings the themes of doubt vs. certainty, racial and gender inequality, and the power hierarchy of the Catholic Church into almost painfully sharp focus.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"The Storms of November" at nimbus theatre

What I love about nimbus theatre is that they often present original work, usually based on history, that, while not always flawless, is always interesting and thought-provoking and sheds new light on their subject. Such is the case with their newest work The Storms of November (written and directed by Co-Artistic Directors Josh Cragun and Liz Neerland, respectively), about sailors, ships, and shipwrecks on Lake Superior. November is a notoriously dangerous month on Minnesota's great and mysterious inland sea, and this play explores the lives of fictional characters on and off the ships, inspired by real people and events.

"emilie/eurydice" by Transatlantic Love Affair at Illusion Theater

I love Transatlantic Love Affair, the Fringe Festival darlings who often work with Illusion Theater to continue to develop a piece after the Fringe. What they do is so unique and special, telling a story with no set or props, using their bodies and voices to create everything in a very specific world. The result is often achingly beautiful. Their new piece, emilie/eurydice, did not appear in the Fringe (maybe because they didn't get in last year) and is instead premiering at the Illusion. This original story of a woman in a coma and those who love her is another example of the beautiful storytelling that TLA does.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Allegiance" at Longacre Theatre on Broadway

Last night marked the opening of Allegiance, the new Broadway musical about Japanese internment camps in WWII era America. Book writers Marc Acito, Jay Kuo (who also wrote the music and lyrics), and Lorenzo Thione were inspired by the childhood experience of actor and Star Trek legend George Tekei, but created a new story and characters within the context of this unjust and often overlooked part of American history. I was fortunate enough to see a preview last week, when my friend snagged what were probably the last two tickets on the sold out opening weekend. Although as a musical there are some weak spots (I have to agree with the reviews that came out this morning, that use words like generic, heavy-handed, and cliche), the huge cast consisting mostly of Asian-American actors is wonderful and it's such an important story to tell. And as the smash-hit musical Hamilton proves, what better way to tell a story about American history than through the quintessentially American art form that is musical theater?

George Tekei was five years old when his family was forced to live in an internment camp for almost four years (watch a PBS interview with George here). But the fictional family of Allegiance consists of a brother and sister in their 20s, with their widowed father and grandfather. They try to make a life for themselves under less than ideal circumstances, banding together with other camp residents to demand improvements ranging from medication to a community dance. Sammy decides to join the Army as soon as he's allowed, proving himself a loyal American, while his sister Kei works for justice from within camp. She falls in love with Frankie, who takes an opposing stance to Sammy, refusing to fight for a country that has imprisoned him and his people. Similarly, Kei and Sammy's father is moved to a harsher prison because he will not swear allegiance to a country that treats him so unjustly, while their grandfather plants a garden to improve life in the camp. Each character tries to make life better and fight for justice in their own way, big or small. When Sammy returns from war, he is upset with the choices his family made, resulting in a decades long estrangement that is eventually healed - but at what cost?

the cast of Allegiance
Despite the fact that an internment camp is a new setting for a musical, the plotlines and characters within the larger context are fairly traditional and a bit predictable and formulaic. But there are some lovely moments and wonderful performances. George Tekei is a delight and has the audience in the palm of his hand, pulling double duty as the elderly Sammy and the revered grandfather, a twinkle in his eye that can be seen clear up to the mezzanine. Lea Salonga is a gift to Broadway and it was a pleasure to finally see her live onstage (not counting the time she brought me to tears singing "On My Own" at a soap opera fan event). Her strong performance as Kei brings out every emotion in the character. Telly Leung is excellent as young Sammy, as is Katie Rose Clarke as his love interest. The two share a sweet love story and sound gorgeous singing together (even if the interracial relationship is never really explored). The entire cast is fantastic and one of the best things about this show is that it's giving opportunities to so many talented Asian-American triple threats to be seen on the Broadway stage.

The mostly traditional musical theater score is pleasant enough, peppered with some Japanese elements, and the creators take advantage of the '40s time period for some fun "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" type music and dance numbers (the only good part of WWII was the music). The dance scene is particularly fun, as is the baseball scene, in contrast to the war scenes which are jarringly disturbing.

I found myself wishing that the creators had told George Tekei's story, rather than trying to cram in so many elements of history that it ends up being a watered down generic story (Fun Home is a great example of the idea that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is). But despite its shortcomings, Allegiance is well worth seeing for the wonderful performances, excellent Asian-American cast, and the telling of an important story in American history.

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

"Fun Home" at Circle in the Square on Broadway

The new original musical Fun Home made history this year as the first musical created by a team of women (music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron) to win the Tony. It's about time, right? But that's not a reason to go see it. Well, it's not the only reason. The reason to see Fun Home is that it's a tragic and funny true story beautifully told through music and cleverly constructed as a memory play, with multiple timepoints intermingling to create a whole and complete picture of a life. That life is Alison Bechdel, cartoonist and author, upon whose autobiographical graphic novel the musical is based. This story that is part coming of age, part family drama, part self-discovery, part coming to terms with the past, feels so real, raw, and intimate. The day after seeing Hamilton and thinking "look what we can do" at the grand scale of it all, Fun Home made me think "look what we can do" on the other end of the spectrum. That is, tell a small, intimate, specific yet universal story through music and theater.

As the story unfolds, we watch a present-day Alison writing her novel, a memoir of her life. Her memories come alive in front of her as she observes, comments, and sometimes interacts with them. She sees her child self, growing up in a seemingly happy family in the '70s with an actress mother and a teacher/funeral home director father. But something is off that young Alison can't quite grasp, and current Alison struggles to understand as she writes her book. Alison also sees her college age self realizing she's gay and coming out to her parents, only to find out that her father, too, is gay, living in the closet and causing complications and heartaches for his family (and himself) through all of the secrets and lies. This is not a happy-go-lucky kind of musical, but one that has moments of humor and moments of grief, sometimes inseparable, like life.

Watching this musical is almost like reading the graphic novel upon which it is based (which I just ordered), as present-day Alison paints a picture of her life for the audience - all the good, bad, and ugly of growing up in a loving yet complicated family. As they say, the more specific something is, the more universal it is. And this story, which is specifically Alison's, is universal in its themes of belonging, growing up, trying to figure out who you are, changing relationships with parents, and remembering the past and accepting it while not letting it define you. In the latter point Fun Home reminds me one of Jeanine Tesori's other musicals, Violet (one of my favorites) - an intimate and personal story of a woman coming to terms with her past and her complicated relationship with her father, told beautifully and poignantly with a small cast and orchestra.

the cast of Fun Home
Six or so months after opening, the original cast is mostly intact, except that the child understudy Gabriella Pizzolo (one of those kids that was born for the stage) has taken over as young Alison. She fits right in with this wonderfully cohesive cast that brings this story to life in such a very real way, especially the three actors playing Alison at various ages - Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and Gabriella, like three phases of a single life experience. Playing Alison's father earned Michael Cerveris won a Tony Award, and it's obvious why he won for his performance of this complicated and conflicted man as he alternately infuriates and engenders empathy. The rest of the nine-person cast are all wonderful in their roles, adult and child alike.

The in-the-round staging of Circle in the Square is perfect for this show as the scenes transition quickly and seamlessly across distance and decades, set pieces gracefully sliding on and off stage or disappearing into the floor. Director Sam Gold utilizes the space well. The one-level arena-like seating means that even if you're sitting in the back row, as I was, you feel like you're watching this story from within. As a band geek, I enjoyed watching the wonderful six-person on-stage band (with the percussionist seemingly backstage somewhere), under the direction of Chris Fenwick. And any child of the '70s will recognize and love/hate the bellbottoms and turtleneck sweaters (scenic and costume design by David Zinn).

The best theater is that which comes from a place of truth, and this story is painfully, beautifully true. Thank you Alison for sharing your story with us, and Jeanine and Lisa for bringing it to life in the way that speaks most clearly to me - musical theater. (Order tickets here, or get them at the TKTS booth like I did.)

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"Something Rotten!" at the St. James Theatre on Broadway

My third Broadway show this week (and second Broadway press comps ever) was the super fun musical spoof Something Rotten! What I'm loving about my week of NYC theater is how different all the shows I've seen are. From the intimate and exquisite new production of Spring Awakening, to the hugely ambitious and layered Hamilton, to the silly and entertaining Something Rotten! What this loving spoof of the musical lacks in depth it more than makes up for in fantastic performances, clever and groan-worthy puns, and musical theater references galore. It's definitely a musical for people who love musicals, but aren't afraid to laugh at the concept.

Something Rotten! is a broad campy comedy about the making of a musical, similar in feel to The Producers and Spamalot. The musical-within-a-musical concept allows the creators to satirize the form while still remaining true to it. Our story takes place in the late 16th Century ("Welcome to the Renaissance"), the blossoming of art and culture, as well as toilets that flush (into the street). Playwright Nick Bottom needs a hit, but Shakespeare is hogging all the glory. So Nick pays a soothsayer to tell him what the next big thing is theater is going to be, and this Nostradamus sees Shakespeare's greatest work Hamlet, as well as the birth of musical theater. Except that he gets things a bit jumbled (fortelling the future isn't an exact science), so what Nick ends up writing, with the help of his sweet lovesick poet brother Nigel, is a mash-up of Hamlet and popular musicals from Annie to Phantom. Which is great fun for the Something Rotten! audience, but not so much for the Omelette: The Musical audience and investors. Or Shakespeare, who dons a disguise (like many of his characters) to sabotage the play. But as the Bard says, all's well that ends well, and in this case that means the Bottoms head to America, where musical theater is truly born.

the super cool Christian Borle as Shakespeare
Like my first two shows this week, this performance featured an understudy filling in for a big name role. I was looking forward to seeing Brian D'Arcy James again after his wonderful appearance at the Guthrie's 50th Anniversary Gala a few years ago. Unfortunately Brian had the night off. But Matt Wall soon won me over with his talent and charm, and if I hadn't know he was an understudy, I never would have guessed. The other big name in this show is Tony winner Christian Borle, and it was a treat to finally see him perform live. He is effortlessly cool and charismatic, and plays Shakespeare like a British rocker, in love with himself and the attention he gets, even if it is "Hard to Be the Bard." Other highlights in the cast include John Cariani as the adorkable Nigel, Kate Reinders as his sweet and equally nerdy love interest, and the powerful-voiced Heidi Blickenstaff as Nick's loyal and feminist wife.

Brian D'Arcy James and Brad Oscar with the cast
Since this is a spoof of musicals, they can get away with big dance numbers that have nothing to do with anything other than showing off the talent of the ensemble and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's big and beautiful Broadway style choreography (the tap duel between Shakespeare and Nick is a highlight). Scott Pask's elaborate scenic design features many moving parts as colorful buildings and structures move smoothly on and off stage. Gregg Barnes' bright and colorful costumes make the 16th Century look like a fun time to be alive!

Something Rotten! is a really fun show, and if you love musicals you'll have a good time catching all of the references in the dialogue, music, and movement. It may be overshadowed by some other popular shows in town right now, but it's still an excellent choice if you're looking for something to see in NYC, and tickets will be easier and cheaper to come by. Check for discount tickets at a number of websites, or the TKTS booth in various locations.

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway

"Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now!" Fans of the American musical are very lucky to be alive right now. Lin-Manuel Miranda is the future of music-theater, and the future is now. Hamilton is a quintessentially American piece of art: musical theater is an American art form, Alexander Hamilton's story, from orphan immigrant to founding father, is a quintessentially American story, the score is a modern American rap/hip-hop/pop/musical theater style, and the cast is a beautifully diverse representation of this country. Lin-Manuel has taken this part of American history that most of us have forgotten and created something so immediate, compelling, epic, human, and utterly modern. In short, Hamilton is everything musical theater should be.

It's rare that one person writes the book, music, and lyrics of a musical; most are written by pairs or teams of artists. It's even more rare that that person also stars in their creation. Who does that?! Lin-Manuel Miranda, that's who. Hamilton is his singular, cohesive, brilliant creation. And even though his excellent understudy Javier Muñoz filled in for him in the title role in the matinee on a two-show day that I saw, I still feel like I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda because this show is him. That's not to say he didn't have help - director Thomas Kail to keep the huge train that is the show on track, Andy Blankenbeuhler's sharp and modern and super cool choreography, Paul Tazewell's stunning period costumes with a modern twist, David Korins' design of a relatively simple but versatile and kinetic set, and of course, this amazing cast that brings Lin-Manuel's vision to vivid life.

Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson with the cast
I love theater that makes me want to rush home and read more about the topic, and this show makes founding father Alexander Hamilton seem like the most fascinating person I never knew (history class was a looooong time ago). From George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolution, to Secretary of the Treasury, to author of the Federalist Papers, to a family man caught in a love triangle with two sisters, to the center of America's first political sex scandal, to death in a dramatic duel. But even thought this is a historical piece, the themes of politics, family, legacy, and striving to make this country better against opposition are extremely relevant to every time period, especially today.

The Hamilton cast recording was released recently and I was torn about whether to get it and listen to it, or wait and see the show first. I chose the latter, and now I cannot wait to download the album and listen to it obsessively. There are just so many words, and no matter how closely you pay attention (and you have to pay attention), you cannot catch them all on first viewing/listening. In fact, my stats friends at counted - Hamilton contains 3-4 times as many words as other musicals. That's insane. And brilliant. But it's not just the words, there are some great melodies too, that haven't left my head yet and likely won't for a long time.

Aaron Burr with the Schuyler sisters
(Leslie Odom, Jr., Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones,
and Renée Elise Goldsberry)
As I mentioned, I did not have the pleasure of seeing Lin-Manuel in the title role, but Javier Muñoz soon made me forget I was watching an understudy as he completely made this complex, layered role his own and seamlessly fit in with the huge and amazing cast. Highlights include Phillipa Soo as Alexander's wife Eliza; Renee Elise Goldsberry as her sister Angelica, Alexander's close confidante (the best love triangles are those in which there is love in all directions, as there is here, creating some achingly beautiful moments for all three); Leslie Odom, Jr. as rival Aaron Burr, who functioned as a sort of narrator; Daveed Diggs as a cool and funky Jefferson; and last but not least, Andrew Rannells, who is an absolute hoot as King George, the spurned lover of America who has rejected him (if you have to replace Jonathan Groff, Andrew Rannells is the only way to go).

In summary, everything you've heard about Hamilton is true. It lives up to the hype, and so much more. I was expecting to laugh and be wowed, but I was not expecting to be moved to tears. This is a show that's both big and epic, and also intensely intimate and emotional. It'll make you laugh, think, cry, and feel every emotion under the sun. This is what musical theater can do, and this is a prime example of why musical theater is my favorite thing in the world. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda.

(Note: The only way to get tickets is to buy them well in advance from the show's website. This is one of those shows that is never going to have discounts available. So just do it, it's worth every penny.)

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"Spring Awakening" at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway

Hey Minnesota friends, I'm in New York City! To celebrate my 15th year of annual visits to my favorite city in the world and my 15th year of running, I ran the NYC marathon (raising $4500 for the MS Society in the process). Now that those amazing, excruciating, inspiring 26.2 miles are done, it's time to see some Broadway shows! Last night I received my first ever press comps for Broadway (after 5 years of this blogging thing, does that mean I've finally made it?). And I could not have chosen a better show for this milestone than the absolutely exquisite revival of one of my favorite musicals, Spring Awakening. But this new production by Deaf West Theatre in L.A. is less of a revival and more of a re-imagining of the 2006 original Broadway hit (to borrow a phrase from our own Theatre Latte Da, who did a pretty amazing re-imagining of this show a few years ago). Director Michael Arden and his team (including ASL Masters who translated the songs and dialogue into ASL) have created something truly unique and original with this Spring Awakening, which not only examines the sexual awakening of teenagers in late 19th Century Germany (which perhaps isn't all that different from today), but also the treatment of deaf children in the same time period, when, according to the Director's note, sign language was banned in schools. This has brought more layers and a new urgency to this already powerful, poignant, devastating, moving, and beautiful story. In short, if you're planning to be in NYC sometime before January 24, go see this show. Even if you've seen Spring Awakening before, you've never seen it like this.

I'm not going to go into the brilliance of this Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik-penned musical based on the 19th Century German play by Frank Wedekind, and how they took this ahead-of-its-time play and made it modern and relevant. I've written enough words about that here and here. Instead I'll focus on the brilliance and uniqueness of this particular interpretation.

Whenever I happen to be at a theater performance with ASL interpretation, I have a hard time taking my eyes off the interpreters because they're so expressive. With this production, I didn't have to. ASL has been incorporated into the show not as an addendum, but as an integral part of the storytelling. Even if you don't understand a single sign, the sign language adds so much depth to the words and music. Musicals express a heightened reality, where things that cannot be expressed in words are expressed through music. Here, things that cannot be expressed through words or even music are expressed through sign language, which may be the most beautiful and expressive language in the world. It's like a dance, and for a show that featured repeated hand movements and choreography in its original form, ASL is a perfect fit. Many of the roles (including Wendla and Moritz) are double-cast with one actor playing the character and signing, and another actor speaking and singing in the background, not just providing the audible voice of the character but also the inner voice. It's like the two actors are playing two parts of the same person, often interacting with each other like we all interact with that inner voice in our heads. At some point I lost track of who was singing and who was signing as it all joined together to create one singular voice.

Melchi und Wendla (Austin P. McKenzie and Sandra Mae Frank)
The original Broadway production of Spring Awakening featured a cast of talented young unknown actors who have gone on to become stars on stage and screen, including Lea Michelle, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher Jr. Similarly, this cast is full of talented young people, most of whom are making their Broadway debuts, some of whom also play instruments, and many of whom are destined to become our next generation of stars. I'm curious what's going to happen when the Tony nominations come out, if two actors will be nominated together for the shared roles, because it's impossible to separate their performances. Sandra Mae Frank is so wonderfully appealing as the sweet, innocent, and curious Wendla, and Katie Boeck provides a lovely voice for her. Daniel N. Durrant beautifully portrays the confused and tormented Moritz, signing in a speaking world adding to the characters frustration. Alex Boniello provides his voice and inner rocker. As Melchior, Austin P. McKenzie is a special kind of triple threat - acting, singing, and signing combining to create this character who thinks he has it all figured out but has much to learn.

The entire ensemble of young people is wonderful, singing, signing, acting, playing guitar or piano or bass (in addition to the four band members). The four adult actors are great too, including Camryn Manheim (from one of my favorite TV shows of the past, The Practice) in what appears to be her stage debut, and Alexandria Wailes (filling in for Marlee Matlin at the performance I saw). Another remarkable thing about this show is that it features the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway, which I find astounding (Broadway could learn could learn a thing or two from Mixed Blood Theatre). Ali Stroker (whom I recognized from another favorite TV show of the recent past, Glee) is a delight and adds another layer of inclusiveness and representation to this production.

the beautiful cast of Spring Awakening
The show is cleverly put together in terms of how ASL and spoken or sung English are combined, and when and where surtitles are used. In one particularly effective scene between Moritz and his father, there is audible silence as the elder Herr Stiefel berates his son for being a "failure" in angry ASL and we read the painful words projected onto the back wall of the stage. The rare moments in which a deaf person screams or speaks are particularly heart-wrenching because it only happens when they feel like they cannot be heard any other way ("why didn't you tell me everything?!"). The multi-level set provides a great playground for this energetic and physical cast, and the simple period costumes contrast nicely with the more modern garb on the inner voices (scenic and costume design by Dane Laffrey).

Spring Awakening is a beautiful, inventive, and inclusive production of a brilliantly written musical, and a wonderful start to my week of Broadway. Get your tickets now (or check out the TKTS line in NYC). Next up for me: a pretty rotten two-show day seeing Hamilton and Something Rotten!

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.