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April 20, 2007

Deaf West awakens with adult-themed fairy tale

From: Long Beach Press-Telegram - Long Beach,CA,USA - Apr 20, 2007

By Evan Henerson, Staff writer

AFTER MORE THAN four years of musical dormancy, Deaf West Theatre has heeded its wake-up call. The sign-language musical, pioneered by Deaf West and championed by Center Theatre Group, has roared into exciting new life.

"Sleeping Beauty Wakes" is the original new musical in its world premiere at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre. The work is an adult-themed

spin on a fairy tale, and perhaps not something that can take to the road with the same ease and commercial success as the company's previous "Big River." So enjoy it while it's here, especially while the composing musicians are on stage to play it.

Director Jeff Calhoun, who so deftly wove deaf and hearing actors into the same canvas with "Oliver!" and "Big River," is back for "Beauty," and, in his hands, a DWT show has never seemed more magical and poignant. In composers/lyricists Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn - of "Striking 12" and the rock band GrooveLily - Calhoun has found a smashing partner. "Big River's" country/folksy score was a kick. "Beauty's" music rocks.

This genre has evolved to a point where an actor's capabilities - hearing or otherwise - are in no way linked to the plot. Every actor signs. If a character doesn't speak, someone else supplies the voice. Yet another person might sing for him. Vigoda (on electric violin) and Milburn (keyboards) are voice actors for key characters, singers and musicians.

Elevated supertitles are projected, and you don't always know where a voice is coming from. But after a minute or two of orientation, none of this matters. The story pulls you in.

Playwright Rachel Sheinkin ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") has spun the tale of Sleeping Beauty (pampered princess pricks finger, falls into 100-year doze) into a meditation on the perils of overprotective parenting. Suppose Beauty (Princess Rose to the Grimms) snoozed through her first prince's kiss and dreamed her way into a 21st-century sleep-disorder clinic? What if the king, her father, found a way to transport himself to the same place in order to shield his child from the perils of the modern world as thoroughly as he did from those of the past?

And suppose Beauty - once awake - decided that life is better lived with peepers peeping rather than in REM state?

Visually, the production has a fairy tale gloss. Designer Tobin Ost's split-level set shuttles the action between a harsh white medical facility and the stained-glass otherworldliness (Michael Gilliam is the lighting designer) of a kingdom once upon a time. Maggie Morgan's costumes are basic and functional, with Bad Fairy Deanne Bray getting the most elaborate duds.

Every fairy tale needs a romance. In "Beauty Wakes," our title character (played by Alexandria Wailes, voiced by Vigoda) flirts in the past with the groundskeeper's son (Russell Harvard, voiced by Milburn) who reappears as a narcoleptic orderly. When she wakes, the orderly is there to spirit her away on his motorcycle, to introduce her to the world of malls, credit cards and a job at White Castle.

There's a sweetly sexualized buzz to the Wailes-Harvard interactions, particularly when they're singing - and signing - together in Beauty's dreams ("Drifting").

Even more tenderly rendered is the relationship between Wailes and Clinton Derricks-Carroll as the king. The king is wrong-headed and probably dying, but he's acting this way for the right reasons.

Milburn and Vigoda's score offers plenty of ballads, and a fair assortment of quick-paced patter songs. The latter cover subjects ranging from diaper changes to the angst of sleep-disorder patients. It's a sound that musical theatergoers should start getting used to.

© 2007 Los Angeles Newspaper Group