When dancers talk about how their moves express their interior selves, it's easy to be skeptical. But what happens when dance moves are, quite literally, language?
At L.A.'s Deaf West Theatre, disability becomes a theatrical advantage, allowing the company to develop a signature blend of song and sign language, as in its thoroughly enjoyable Pippin, Big River (which moved to Broadway) and Sleeping Beauty Wakes (which lost its magic when re-mounted with other actors at the La Jolla Playhouse).
The Deaf West approach works just as well for Spring Awakening, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's 2006 Broadway musical about repressed German high school students (adapted from Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 play).
The naïve Wendla and tortured Moritz are played by deaf performers (Sandra Mae Frank, Daniel N. Durant) tailed by guitar-strumming troubadours who sing for them and represent their inner voices (Katie Boeck, Rustin Cole Sailors). But the charismatic rebel Melchior is, naturally, played by a performer who sings and signs confidently: Austin McKenzie, who is not deaf but learned sign language while working at a camp for people with special needs.
Starting with these central casting choices, director Michael Arden's production rarely strikes a false note. It even improves on the Broadway original, in which the moody, pop-ish songs felt too removed from the story. Here, watching actors sign each word helps draw focus to the lyrics' importance and connection to character.
Bill T. Jones' odd, frenetic arm movements were highlights of the Broadway production, and here Spencer Liff uses his sign language-inflected choreography to similar effect, as an adolescent attempt to express the inexpressible lurking inside.
The production offers a delicious mixture of singing, movement, musical instruments, supertitles, ropes, flowers, passion and heartbreak, but sign language, with its inherent theatricality, is the main ingredient. The eye never gets bored. And as tough as the high school experience in 1890s Germany may have been, Deaf West's convivial, intimate production makes you envy the support shared among peers.
Deaf West Theatre, in association with The Forest of Arden at Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St., dwntwn.; through Nov. 9. (818) 762-2998, www.deafwest.org.