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'Spring Awakening' features deaf and hearing actors

Daniel N. Durant, left, and Krysta Rodriguez appear

Daniel N. Durant, left, and Krysta Rodriguez appear during a performance of "Spring Awakening," in New York City. Credit: AP / Joan Marcus

When the musical "Spring Awakening" first hit Broadway in 2006, it garnered plenty of buzz. There was Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's appealing rock score. The raucous young cast -- including a pre-"Glee" Lea Michele and now-"Hamilton" Jonathan Groff -- jumping up and down and shouting the F word. It was called "groundbreaking" and won eight Tony Awards.

Now "Spring" is awakening Broadway audiences again, but this time some of the most riveting moments are the quietest.

The new Deaf West Theatre production, directed by Michael Arden, opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Sept. 27. It stars deaf actors (including Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin) and hearing actors (Emmy-winner Camryn Manheim of "The Practice"), plus another slew of rising young stars performing the show in English and American Sign Language (ASL). Many are signing for the first time. Some also play instruments onstage. About 20 cast members are making their Broadway debut.

"Everyone in our show is being asked to do something they've never done before," says Arden, who first learned ASL in 2003, when cast in Deaf West's "Big River" revival.

"They've got to drop a lot of ego, and it's great when they do," he says. "Then you're not watching an actor play a role -- you're watching a character come to life."


Can you hear me now?

Based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, the tale of angst-ridden teens struggling to live and love in sexually repressed Germany has always been controversial. But for all its hype, the story can be a bit one-note: I'm a teen and my parents don't get me. Yeah, yeah, nothing new.

Adding deaf actors to the mix gives a potent reason for that angst. "There are more flavors in this version," says Matlin. "You've got hearing and deaf actors coming together in a show about miscommunication."

Several roles are performed by two actors -- like fragile, abused Martha, whose lines are signed by deaf actor Treshelle Edmond, spoken and sung by hearing actor Kathryn Gallagher (who also plays guitar).

"I was scared -- the first rehearsal, I walked in and it was the quietest room I'd ever been in," says Gallagher, laughing.

"Yes," says Edmond, signing and speaking in a soft voice. "I imagine it was."

After a recent rehearsal, Edmond and Gallagher sit together in the theater's mezzanine lobby, with a reporter and ASL interpreter. Gallagher (daughter of veteran actor Peter Gallagher) had no signing experience before being cast, but, after learning her lines in ASL, she's picked up more phrases so she and Edmond can communicate. (Alert audience members will be able to do the same as they watch the actors sing and sign, catching key words, like "spring" -- the right hand rising from behind the left, fingers extended upward like flowers. Or "alone" -- the back of a raised index finger, rotating.)

The pair agreed on how to play their character scene by scene, so they'd express the same emotions at the same time. They watched each other work during rehearsals, and Edmond studied a video of Gallagher singing the lyrics to each song.

A small red light in the theater, seen by actors onstage but not the audience, cues the deaf actors when their counterparts start singing. Edmond and Gallagher have even worked on keeping their breathing in sync.

"We have to become this unit or it all falls apart," says Gallagher.

"It's like magic," says Edmond.


Up for a challenge

For director Arden, it's less magic, more about "selflessness," he says. "Most actors are used to leading but there's so much following and listening, with eyes and body, that has to happen here. That's our greatest challenge, and our greatest strength."

Each pair of actors has worked out their own cues to help each other work as one.

"We always joke, gee, if I sneeze at the wrong time I might trigger someone to start up some choreography," says Gallagher. "Everyone has to be focused. We're a family, a team."

Edmond agrees.

"I'm grateful for Kathryn," she says. "I never like interpreters speaking for me. I like to speak for myself. But when I learned Kathryn would be voicing for me, I thought, OK, I'm gonna open up to her. And I've so appreciated how we came together."

"Oh, you're gonna make me cry," says Gallagher, leaning on Edmond's arm.

This alchemy of focus and friendship seems to have worked, though Arden is loath to take much credit for it. "I think audiences are responding because it's something we don't see that often," he says.

That said, ASL seems in the midst of a theatrical moment. Broadway's first revival of "Children of a Lesser God," a romantic drama set in a deaf school and directed by Kenny Leon, is slated to open this spring.

For Matlin, who won her Oscar in "Children's" film version and is now making her Broadway debut, this experience is a challenge, but rewarding.

"They're learning ASL, and it's thrilling." She recalls running into one cast member recently on the street, speaking in sign language, feeding him signs for words he didn't know. "He was saying, 'Oh, I gotta get this, gotta get this.' "

She stops signing, and speaks in her own voice.

"I adore them all."



LI harpist makes Broadway debut in 'Spring Awakening'

Alexandra Winter always knew that all of those years she spent learning to play the harp would eventually pay off. She just didn't imagine it would be to the tune of her Broadway debut.

The Hempstead-raised actress-musician gets to show off her talents as a harpist and perform in the role of Greta Brandenburg, fiancee of the forest inspector, in the revival of "Spring Awakening" that opened Sept. 27.

"My grandmother and my mother always wanted to learn how to play, but it was never really a possible thing," Winter says. "It was too expensive and it's a big instrument. When I was old enough to learn how to play an instrument they chipped in together and decided that they wanted to make it possible for third generation."

Winter calls the harp a challenging instrument and "there were lots of tears involved learning, but it paid off."

Director Michael Arden's reboot features deaf actors as well as speaking actors who also play music in the show. When Arden saw on Winter's resume that she played the harp, it gave her the edge over her competition.

Winter studied theater arts at the University of Southern California after not getting accepted at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon. "I remember being absolutely devastated that they did not work out for me," she says.

In Los Angeles she entered an "American Idol"-type competition looking for the city's next great stage star that was judged by local casting agents, talent agents and directors. "By the end, I was contacted by two agents and was signed by one, and I'm with them," Winter says.

That led to her getting cast last year in "Spring Awakening," which began life at a tiny black box theater and then moved to a larger house in Beverly Hills. Now she's made it to Broadway, where she says she's loved the challenges of playing the harp before 1,100 people eight times a week and learning American Sign Language for her scenes with the deaf actors. One thing still amuses her.

"It's just funny that you have to go to L.A. to come back and do Broadway."


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