When a Los Angeles company called Deaf West Theatre brought its breakthrough musical revival of "Big River" to Broadway in 2003, the combination of American Sign Language and spoken word fused into a surprising form that told its Huck Finn story through song and a kind of beautiful gestural ballet.
And when a revelatory rock musical called "Spring Awakening" won eight Tonys in 2007, the audacious show made riveting rock art out of a scandalous 1891 tragedy about repressed adolescents in a German village. Not incidentally, this primal scream of turbulent puberty introduced such big-future newbies as Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr.
Now Deaf West is back to put its unique, if not as edgy, interpretive touch on a work deeper, darker, more dauntingly challenging than "Big River." The acclaimed production, which just got 16 nominations for theater awards in Los Angeles, combines Deaf actors, hearing actors and a hero, Austin P. McKenzie as Melchior, who hears but is also fluent in ASL. Since the other two main characters in this ensemble show are deaf -- Sandra Mae Frank as budding Wendla, Daniel N. Durant as the misfit Moritz -- they are deftly shadowed by singing and speaking counterparts in modern dress.More coverageLinda WinerPhotosTony Awards 2014More coverageTheater reviews
This is, after all, a story about innocent kids, deprived of sex education, who sing about "The Word of Your Body," one of the stirring Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik songs. Spencer Liff's choreography, though lacking the creepy and erotic romanticism of Bill T. Jones' brilliant original, builds on the cumulating furies of self-discovery.
The adults -- cruel or at least clueless -- are played by Tony-winning Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, with talking and singing supplied by basso Patrick Page, and Camryn Manheim, who is more cartoon evil than necessary.
The costumes and the spare double-decker stage with the upstairs band are by Dane Laffrey. Most of the dress, including the white underwear worn in the preshow, is late 19th century. But the stirrings -- masturbation, incest, suicide, abortion -- are as timelessly modern as when pioneering pre-Expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind shocked his world with them.
The results are moving and both visually and musically impressive, if ultimately a bit repetitious. Although the production never quite delivers the knotted punch of the sharp-edged original, the teens' stifled internal lives roil with the power of outsider-ness and communication crises that transcend straightforward storytelling.
WHERE Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.
INFO $35-$160; 877-250-2929, springawakeningthemusical.com