“SPRING AWAKENING” TAKES BROADWAY BY STORM AGAIN

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Six years after the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening took its final bow, the revolutionary rock musical has made an inspired return to the Great White Way for a stunning limited engagement.

Directed by Michael Arden, the new Spring Awakening first blossomed at the Deaf West Theatre Company in Los Angeles before transferring to New York. Featuring both hearing and non-hearing actors, this unique interpretation of the story is told not just through composer Duncan Sheik’s Tony Award-winning score, but also through American Sign Language. To accomplish this, some characters simultaneously sign and sing, while others are played by deaf actors who perform the songs using ASL and a second actor performs the songs vocally in tandem with his/her counterpart.

While the book and lyrics of the 2006 production remain unchanged, Arden’s vision for this revival pulls from the historical context of the 1880 Milan Conference, which passed a dictate that forbade sign language in European and American schools. Instead, deaf students were to be taught Oralism (lip reading, speech and mimicking mouth shapes). Not only does this added layer breathe new life into the beloved musical, it also remarkably manages to underline the harsh, bleak, and inhumane expectations and pressures placed on these characters – making their eventual breaking points all that more inevitable.

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Spring Awakening began as a controversial – and quickly banned – German play written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind. One hundred and fifteen years later, the musical adaptation debuted and has become a cultural phenomenon ever since. The story details what happens when a group of teenagers, all living in a supremely conservative German town, begin to unearth what sex is. Without the guidance of anyone willing to answer their questions, they embark on a quest to discover what sex means and feels like for themselves. Yet as they begin to do so, the ripple effect of this exploration shines a light on the dark underbelly of their community, and ultimately tears them apart as a result.

“Though much has changed since the time of Wedekind and the Milan Conference, we still live in a world where beliefs, cultures and individuals are silenced and marginalized,” Arden’s Director’s Note in the Playbill reads. “I am honored to continue the legacy of Deaf West, an organization dedicated to bridging cultures and shifting perceptions.”

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Where the 2006 production launched the careers of such big names as Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher, Jr., this iteration of Spring Awakening similarly introduces a cast of exorbitantly talented young actors poised to become breakout stars. As Melchior, Austin P. McKenzie is nothing short of fantastic in his theatrical and Broadway debut. The actor went to college to study special needs teaching and ASL interpretation before landing this coveted role. His Melchior becomes increasingly unhinged due to the lies he and his peers are fed before he demands to figure out the world on his own terms. And when he does, the consequences he faces are both profound and heart shattering.

3887Sandra Mae Frank’s consummate portrayal of Wendla is breathtaking from the moment she steps onto the stage with the opener “Mama Who Bore Me.” While she begins as too naïve and sheltered for her own good, Wendla’s journey matures her from a child to a woman, and Frank plays this in a striking way with cynosure stage presence. One of the deaf actors whose songs are sung by another actor (Katie Boeck), Frank’s portrayal of Wendla’s unquenchable pursuit for truth and feeling is a revelation. Her desperation and yearning is conveyed with so much passion and conviction that it would be an actual travesty for her to be overlooked at next summer’s Tony Awards.

Also featured in the cast are Smash star Andy Mientus, Arden’s real-life husband who was part of the first national tour of Spring Awakening, and Krysta Rodriguez, who was in that first national tour and is the only original Broadway cast member returning for this revival. Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) and Emmy and Golden Globe winner Camryn Manheim (The Practice; Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) serve as the two adult female characters, while 28-year-old actress Ali Stroker, who plays Anna, is the first person in a wheelchair to ever appear on Broadway.

“I never saw anyone in a chair on Broadway,” Stoker told CBS News. “So I had this dream, and I wanted to make it happen. But no one had ever done it so there was a part of me that was like, okay I’m not gonna get my hopes up because maybe it’s not possible.” Yet Stoker’s dream not only came true, but she has made Broadway history and her story is just another example of the beauty of this revival.

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Throughout the show, the eight deaf cast members work together with the eight hearing actors to make sure that the ASL and songs are always in sync. From color coded stage lights to subtle gestures that act as cues, the production is laced from top to bottom with hidden stop and go marks so that nobody ever gets ahead of anyone else on stage.

“It can be a blink of an eye, a shrug of a shoulder, a tap of a leg – little ways we all know what we need to know,” deaf actress Treshelle Edmond (Martha) told The New York Times, explaining how she and Kathryn Gallagher, Martha’s singing and speaking voice, collaborate. Edmond went on to reveal that not only did she study the way that Gallagher’s mouth moved, she also “spent time holding Ms. Gallagher’s guitar as it was played, learning from vibration to understand her songs’ rhythm.”

With many of the speaking/singing actors often relegated to positions behind their deaf counterparts, the audience’s focus is undoubtedly on the sign language. Interwoven into Spencer Liff’s masterful choreography, the ASL gorgeously turns thisSpring Awakening into something truly novel on the Broadway stage. It enhances the story and its players in ways that make the show not just unmissable, but completely unforgettable.

Spring Awakening is now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through January 24, 2016. Click HERE to purchase tickets.

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH JESS GLYNNE

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In what feels like an overnight transformation, 25-year-old Jess Glynne has gone from a pop newcomer to an unstoppable global hit-making sensation.

Since she debuted on the music scene in 2014, Glynne has amounted an incredible five #1 singles in the UK, tying Girls Aloud’s Cheryl Fernandez-Versini for the most ever number ones by a British female artist. As a result, her just-released and superb debut album, I Cry When I Laugh, already feels like it could be a greatest hits collection.

Currently embarking on her first headlining tour, the soulfully voiced chanteuse chatted with me about her whirlwind year, her artistic identity, her first Grammy win, her love of horseback riding, and much more.

jessNAGORSKI: In the past year and a half, you’ve been part of seven Top 10 singles in the UK. As a solo artist, “Hold My Hand” and “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” hit #1 on the charts and “Right Here” reached #6. As a featured artist, your collaborations with Clean Bandit, “Rather Be” and “Real Love,” peaked at #1 and #2 respectively, and your collaborations with Route 94 (“My Love”) and Tinie Tempah (“Not Letting Go”) also hit the #1 slot. How did achieving such massive success before your debut album was even released impact how you wrote and put together that record?

GLYNNE: When you put it like that it seems like the pressure should have been intense, but weirdly I just took everything in my stride when making my album. I always go in to sessions with an open mind to create a masterpiece that I love, and that’s how I approached making this album. I wrote songs that meant a lot to me. I think that’s why the album is quite diverse and each track has its own story because I didn’t create them by following a theme. I created through my day to day experiences and emotions.

You also took home your first Grammy this year in the Best Dance Recording category for “Rather Be.” What was going through your head when you found out that you had won?

I still can’t quite believe it. When they announced our names as the Grammy Winners, I was in shock. It was a surreal but an unbelievable experience and one I’ll always remember.
 
How do you think your music as a solo artist differs and stands out from your collaborations with other musicians?

When I started writing, my music had always been soul and R&B orientated. “My Love” was a collaboration with Route 94 and I gave my soulful vocals to it. “Right Here” I wrote without knowing it was going to be my single. I was working with Gorgon City at the time and they were very house infused and I guess that’s where it came from. I’ve always loved the genre and I guess it worked for those songs, but my material has always been inspired by what I grew up listening to and that was stuff like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Amy Winehouse, John Legend and Jay-Z. So I think the shift was always going to happen.

Why is I Cry When I Laugh the best name for your album?

Well it’s firstly a fact, I actually cry when I laugh! Like, a lot of tears. It’s a weird thing I think I inherited from my dad. My sister has it too! I chose it for the name of the album because the album is a story of me and my life with everything I’ve been through. There’ve been ups and downs and I thought that title suited the emotions of everything so well – plus it is a fact about me. So there was no better way to sum it up really.

Do you have a favorite song on the record?

To be honest I love every song, but I would say “Ain’t Got Far To Go” as it was the first song I wrote with Knox Brown and it helped form the spine of the album. It’s about never giving up and believing in yourself, not letting people get in the way of what you want and making it happen – all the things I live by daily.

“Hold My Hand” is starting to really take off in the US. Can you please tell me a little bit about how that song came about and why you think it makes for a good introduction to your music for American audiences?

I was in the studio with my writing partner Jin Jin (Janeé Bennett) and we were both going through a bit of a rough time. Believe me. We held each other’s hands, put our cheek’s on each other’s cheeks, and sat on one another’s laps. I was having quite a lot of anxiety after having had such a mad year. That was what the song was about. Hold me and tell me everything’s going to be OK. Getting a hug and feeling like you can take on the world. Like many of the songs on the album, this was a reminder about the positive and having someone by your side, and I think everyone in the world can relate to that feeling.

So then what made “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” the perfect follow-up single?

This song in particular has a really deep important message from me. I was going through such a strange time when I entered the industry and this song is about that. It’s about seeing hope through sadness.

You’re currently on your headlining “Ain’t Got Far To Go Tour” in both the US and in the UK. For fans who have not caught the show yet, what can they expect from it?

They can expect a big lively, soulful show full of character. I’m bringing all the songs from the album to life with my gorgeous band and my amazing backup singers!

You recently underwent surgery on your vocal chords with the same doctor who performed the same procedure for Sam Smith. How are you feeling now and what made you realize this was something that you needed to have done?

I had been having problems with both talking and singing for a little while because I had a polyp on one of my chords which was getting in the way of me singing. It got to a point where I couldn’t deliver and I had to put a stop to it and get the surgery. Now my voice is better than ever and I’m so grateful to Dr. Zeitels for his magic.

Which artists were you listening to the most while recording your album and who would you say was the biggest influence behind crafting its sound?

I was listening to a lot of music both current and classic but my main inspirations were from things that have happened to me, things I’ve experienced in my life or that of my family and friends. Without them and without living, I would have no experiences or journeys to talk about.

What was the first album you ever purchased?

Born To Do It by Craig David!

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The UK dance-pop scene is enjoying quite the resurgence at the moment. Artists like Clean Bandit, Disclosure, Gorgon City, Sigma, and Naughty Boy are churning out hit after hit. What is it about this sound that you think is causing audiences to respond so positively to it on a global level?

There’s obviously the production and the sound, but I think people connect with the emotion of the songs. That’s what they relate to. At the heart, these are songs about love, sadness, joy and life – all very human things!

What’s something about yourself that you think your fans would be very surprised to learn? 

I love horseback riding. I haven’t been able to do it for a while but hopefully I can do it again when I get a break. Maybe I’ll have my own horse one day!

You had already done so much leading up to this album. How did you finally celebrate once it was released?

In the UK, I threw a party with all of my family & friends and just danced to my favorite songs! In the US, we were right in the middle of the tour so I get to see every show as a mini party! Come and join the celebration!

Originally published on PopBytes