The news that Balagan Theatre‘s regional premiere of the musical Spring Awakening sold out its two-week January run, and will return for an encore two-week run this spring (April 12-15 and 19-21) is review enough, if you were wondering whether scrappy little Balagan had it in them to do the Tony-collecting musical justice. Tickets start at just $20 and are already on sale here.
Not that anyone would confuse the look of Balagan’s show with Broadway spectacle: Ahren Buhmann’s set is largely a multi-level wooden stage. A 7-performer band (led by Kimberly Dare) sits high at the back, and there’s a thrust central area for big numbers. Balagan may have exited their black-box setup, further up Pine, for more roomy theatrical digs at the Erickson Off-Broadway, but they still make a virtue of necessity in directing your attention mainly to the performers. Costumer Chelsea Blum had more to work with; her schoolboy uniforms verge on Britpop music video material, and Wendla’s black stockings, silk slip, and little girl’s frilly, drawstringed shift are a study in layered character exposition.
Seattle is rich with young musical theatre talent, thanks to the likes of Village Theatre, the 5th Ave, and Seattle Musical Theatre, which manage to employ a terrific amount of liberal arts majors from area colleges. As polished as the performances in the leads are–Diana Huey sings Wendla; Brian Earp, Melchior–Balagan’s show profits enormously from the gleeful, anarchic energy of the even younger actors in the male and female ensembles, who boil about the stage in Lexi Scamehorn and Kathryn Van Meter’s choreography, poised at the phase shift between teenage Brownian motion and full-on moshing. You’ve also got to love Kirsten deLohr Helland’s full-throated wild child, Ilse.
The conceit of Spring Awakening is that it’s set in “a provincial German town in the late 1890s,” when the original Spring Awakening play was written by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Wedekind was a tiny bit ahead of his time in shoehorning “abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse, and suicide” into his play; today of course that’s box office gold. But Duncan Sheik’s music, an idiosyncratic fusion of alt-rock, singer-songwriter, and ’70s musical (doesn’t “The Word of Your Body” sound like it must be an outtake from Godspell?), and Steven Sater’s knowing lyrics and book speak directly to the contemporary audience, which tendency director Eric Ankrim runs with (the ensembles’ prairie-dogging Melchior’s deflowering of Wendla manages to incarnate both ageless gossipy social awareness and sexting).
Why the feint? I suspect it’s to provide emotional distance from that laundry list of teenage terrors. (One of the best numbers, purely as a song, is “Totally Fucked,” which intimately details the emotional stages of getting busted. In context of the musical, it’s in the wrong spot: You’ve just visited the graveyard to witness something totally fucked. But the song manages to pull you along anyway.) Spring Awakening is perfectly adolescent in its succession of provoking-a-scenes, and chronic ironicizing, and authority figures (Jeanette d’Armand is the Adult Women; Mark Waldstein, the Adult Men) haven’t come off so badly since Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
I mentioned that Brian Earp sang uberjungenmensch Melchior–typecasting of sorts since Earp is a “graduate of Yale University, where he majored in cognitive science with a concentration in philosophy, and sang with the 100th Anniversary Yale Whiffenpoofs”–but Balagan’s cast has something special as well in Jerick Hoffer’s Moritz. It’s not just the pipes, though Hoffer sings “Don’t Do Sadness” like he wrote it himself, with the fiercely unselfconscious falseness of someone who’s checking out of reality. Hoffer’s Moritz displays that more fluid sexual identity which remains one of the more enduring teenage terrors (not least because of bullying)–teenagers deliver notably clear signals as to which pack they belong to, and any “undecideds” have a harder time finding their support group. If you can laugh at some of the sexual naiveté burlesqued here, Hoffer steps right through that faux 1890s frame to persuade you that, for plenty, spring awakening is still a life or death experience.