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Broadway Shockers 2015: Spring Awakening, The Color Purple, Oklahoma! Reinvented

Everyone's played a role in the most beloved of Broadway musicals. Several classics came back to the stage this year in mind-blowing ways we didn't expect.

Just when you think you know a classic, you see a production so brilliantly reimagined that it's like viewing the show for the first time. That was the reaction most theatergoers experienced several times this year, with Michael Arden's breathtaking Spring Awakening, John Doyle's emotionally overwhelming The Color Purple, Daniel Fish's astonishing Oklahoma!, and Ivo van Hove's shocking A View From the Bridge subverting expectations and blowing everyone's mind.

How does one create a musical with actors who can't hear? That's the question Deaf West Theatre answers best. Even though their Big River made a splash on Broadway in 2003, everyone was still pondering the concept when Arden's Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening was announced. And yet, as we came to learn, adding deafness into a musical about isolation and loneliness is pretty genius, creating yet another obstacle for the young characters who are trying valiantly to find themselves in a world that doesn't understand them. In the end, it was a celebration of inclusion, with hearing, deaf, and disabled performers bringing this wonderful show to life, subverting all of our expectations in the process.

With Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Fish created an immersive experience that emphasized communal nature of theater. Laura Jellenick's set was not some sprawling prairie; it was a wood-paneled community hall, with audience members seated at lunch tables, where they were served chilli and lemonade. The band was made of six, with orchestrations by Daniel Kluger that evoked old-fashioned Americana. And through his indie-movie vision for the piece, Fish brought out the darkness that simmers below the frothy surface.

Damon Daunno as Curly in Daniel Fish's production of Oklahoma! at Bard College.
(© Cory Weaver)

Doyle's Color Purple was something of a miracle. Originally, the charms of Stephen Bray, Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis' musical were lost in a gargantuan production, but here they shine like the sun with full force. Doyle proves himself once again to be a masterful stage craftsman, trimming the show's fat, scaling it down, and keeping it simple. He lets the actors take center stage, and boy do they.

In A View From the Bridge, van Hove removed all of the kitchen sink naturalism from Arthur Miller's text, stripping the show to its bare essentials: dialogue and a wooden chair. Confiding the actors to a space shaped like a boxing ring, they prowl around like caged animals as the story of Eddie Carbone's downfall comes to life without the ability to be stopped. We could hear a pin drop at the end, as the cast huddles together in one of the most amazing coup de theatre Broadway his witnessed in several years.

In Ivo van Hove's production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, the drama comes to life without the use of props. Except for a single wooden chair.
(© Jan Versweyveld)