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'Spring Awakening': A musical offering a stage for deaf actors

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(Read caption) 'Spring Awakening' stars Sandra Mae Frank (l.) and Austin P. McKenzie (r.).

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A new production of the Broadway hit “Spring Awakening” is bringing new opportunities to deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and audience members. 

The Broadway revival is mounted by Deaf West Theatre, which puts on productions that have deaf and hard-of-hearing actors as well as hearing ones. The theater won acclaim for its 2003 revival of the show “Big River,” which is a musical version of Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” “River” was nominated for various Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical, and received a Tony honor for excellence in the theatre.

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Through the use of American Sign Language in its shows, Deaf West Theatre creates not only a show for deaf and hard-of-hearing actors but for deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members, as ASL and text is heavily used during their productions.

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In addition, this new production of “Spring” features Ali Stroker, who is reportedly the first actor who uses a wheelchair to appear in a Broadway show. 

The musical “Spring” is based on the play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, which tells the story of German teenagers living in the nineteenth century. The musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2006 and starred Jonathan Groff, Jonathan Gallagher Jr., and Lea Michele, won various Tony Awards, including best musical.

For some of the roles in the new production, such as the female lead Wendla, the production has one actor sign the dialogue and song lyrics, and another play the character’s “voice.” For Wendla, Sandra Mae Frank signs the lyrics and dialogue, while Katie Boeck provides vocals. Boeck is dressed in street clothes, while Frank wears Wendla's costume. Austin P. McKenzie, who portrays one of the male leads, Melchior, is a hearing actor and he signs his dialogue and lyrics. 

Actress Marlee Matlin stars in the production, portraying various roles. 

The production is getting rave reviews. The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood calls the show “thrillingly inventive… a first-rate production of a transporting musical,” while F. Kathleen Foley of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the show provoked “goosebumps… It's hard to enumerate all the ways in which the Deaf West's ‘Awakening’ is so very, very good.” Entertainment Weekly’s Bill Keith writes of the show, “The company’s introduction of American Sign Language grants the show more heft and sincerity, and in turn a new level of intimacy… It’s been twelve years since Deaf West mounted a Broadway production – let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long for another.”

This new production of “Spring” is scheduled to run until January.


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