REVIEW: BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP’S “CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD”

THE NEED FOR HUMAN CONNECTION IS UNIVERSAL. HOW THAT CONNECTION IS ACCOMPLISHED, HOWEVER, IS NOT.

Now playing at Berkshire Theatre Group (in Stockbridge, MA), Children of a Lesser God examines some of the various ways that people seek that connection. Originally written in 1979 by Mark Medoff (who won a Tony and Olivier Award upon its publication), the play beautifully showcases the relationship between a speech therapist and his deaf student.

Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff; Wonderstruck, former Miss Deaf America) was born deaf. Growing up, she thought that there was something wrong with her. As she got older, she realized that the world she lives in is not necessarily the same one that the other people around her inhabit. Now a grown 26-year-old woman, Sarah does not feel the need to succumb to the communicative demands of the hearing world. Instead, she embraces sign language as her primary method of interacting with others.

Enter James Leeds (Joshua Jackson; Dawson’s CreekThe Affair). Specializing in teaching deaf students how to speak out loud, James emphasizes tools such as lip reading to help his students communicate more freely with the hearing. His ultimate goal is to educate his students how to overcome their fears and trust themselves enough to use their voices as a comfortable form of conversation.

For James, taking on Sarah as a student presents an interesting challenge. How can he teach someone something that they not only don’t want, but strongly feel that they don’t need to learn? An unconventional teacher from the moment he’s introduced, James quickly goes from being frustrated with Sarah to admiring and ultimately falling in love with her.

Children of a Lesser GodAs their connection continues to deepen, James is forced to call into question his firmly held notion that Sarah must adhere to the standards of the hearing world in order to succeed within it. How can he rightfully claim that she must change how she interacts with her hearing counterparts? How can he argue that she must conform in order to be heard? After all, the way she’s communicated her whole life has resulted in the two of them developing the most intimate relationship he’s ever had. Their incandescent love for and understanding of one another evolved naturally without Sarah ever having to audibly speak a single word.

The ensuing result is a fascinating dichotomy and exploration of human boundaries. Does James put pressure on Sarah to use her voice out of his love and caring for her? Or is it cruel for him to ask and expect her to relinquish her lifelong beliefs to appease him? And despite their passion, can Sarah hold onto her fierce independence while romantically involved with someone who will never fully understand her experience?

The role of Sarah has previously won actresses Phyllis Frelich a Tony Award and Marlee Matlin an Academy Award (for the 1986 film adaptation). Yet Ridloff manages to define her Sarah in simultaneously assertive, comical and heartwarming ways that make this standout performance unique and unforgettable. Her vulnerable interpretation of the character is nuanced and brilliant. Not a moment passes by that Ridloff is unable to relay every thought that Sarah has through her perfectly expressive and daring work. The window she provides into Sarah’s mind and soul allows for a rich and layered understanding of her character that is a real feat to accomplish for any actor in a singular setting.

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Likewise, Jackson’s portrayal of James is a true tour-de-force. His command of sign language is spot-on, and watching James’ journey unfold while he audibly interprets Sarah’s side of each conversation for audience members unfamiliar with ASL, makes for a gripping performance that could easily rebrand the seasoned screen actor as a powerhouse stage presence. Producer Hal Luftig has already expressed interest in extending this production’s life after its initial Berkshires run is over. If a Broadway transfer is indeed in its future, don’t be surprised to find Jackson and Ridloff’s names on upcoming Tony ballots. Both actors give mesmerizing, fully committed and high caliber performances that demand to be seen.

Under the masterful direction of Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Hairspray Live, The Wiz! Live), this triumphant production of Children of a Lesser God is as poignant as it is marvelously executed. Even its minimal set provides a crucial sense of intimacy that allows the play to skillfully examine language and love in moving and thought-provoking ways. Now playing through July 22, Children of a Lesser God will deeply resonate with audience members long after the final curtain drops.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Children of a Lesser God, now through July 22 only at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published on PopBytes

“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