Regional Reviews: Seattle
Balagan Blasts into the New Year with
The show's national tour stop at the Paramount in '08 sputtered and drew poorly at the box office, largely because that huge house and the overwrought Broadway staging didn't serve the quirky, rock-infused musical by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music). The Erickson seats 100 and several of the seats are essentially onstage, with Ankrim's electric staging getting his actors right in the audience's faces. And, while the piece itself still left me oddly unmoved, the Balagan production is undeniably electric and really pushes the company to the forefront of Seattle's evolving Fringe theatre scene.
Based on a controversial 1892 play by Frank Wedekind (banned in Germany for a while due to its portrayal of abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide) freely adapted by Sater and Sheik, Spring Awakening also takes place in 1890s Germany, as a cross-section of young students experience the attendant struggles, joys and sorrows of coming of age. The main story thread is the relationship between the virginal Wendla, a total innocent in the ways of the flesh, and the independent, rebellious Melchior who, after a brief, stumble into S&M territory make tender love, and suffer the attendant consequences of having conceived a child. Another plot strand is the sad plight of misfit student Moritz, befriended by Melchior, who creates a provocative essay that has profound effects on them. Sheik's score, though full of some rapturously beautiful melodies (some which recall The Fantasticks-era Jones and Schmidt) goes hard rock several times, during which the characters whip out hand-held mikes. Ankrim's staging makes this anachronism more organic and less distracting than Michael Mayer's Broadway version, much to the show's benefit. Also I was able to gain more respect for Sater's lyrics in the Erickson, where musical director Kimberly Dare successfully keeps a balance between her fine musicians and the strong vocals of the cast.
Ankrim's largely twenty-something cast is rife with some of the best young talent to be found in Seattle, augmented with some even younger and very promising members of the ensemble. Diana Huey sings like an angel from her opening "Mama Who Bore Me" onwards, and plucks at the heartstrings as Wendla, matched by Brian Earp's intensity and vocal prowess as her lover Melchior. Jerick Hoffer as Moritz takes a role that could be overplayed and overwrought right to the edge and never goes over to it. He has amazing presence and fine vocal chops, and when he shares the stage with Kirsten deLohr Helland's perfectly modulated portrayal of his childhood chum turned wild-child Ilse in "Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind" it is a musical and emotional highlight of the production. Brianne Wylie is another shining star in this cast as the physically/emotionally abused Martha, and she and Helland make "The Dark I Know Well" another stand-out. Justin Huertas as the overtly gay character Hanschen could pull back on his campy portrayal to better effect, but he and Ben Wynant's shy Ernst pair well for their romantic moment in "The Word of Your Body." The Adult Women in the show are successfully delineated and succinctly individualized by Jeannette d'Armand, though Mark Waldstein does less well as the Adult Men, save a memorably vile schoolmaster. The full company is mesmerizing on their big company vocals, especially the act two rouser "Totally Fucked" led by Earp, and the hauntingly lovely show closer "Song of the Purple Summer."
Choreography by Lexi Scamehorn and Kathryn Van Meter is effectively organic and naturalistic. Ahren Buhmann's set design is stark and effective, accented by Robert Aguilar's lighting design (though at a few moments actors staged way downstage fall out of the light) and Chelsea Blum's costumes capture the time and place well.
Those like myself who grew up on Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and the like need not steer away from Spring Awakening, particularly a rendering as good as this one. As this is a limited run, word of a spring re-awakening is already floating around the theatre community, though, with cast changes likely, I urge you to see the show in this run if you can.
Spring Awakening runs through January 15, 2012, at the Erickson Theatre on Capitol Hill 1524 Harvard Avenue. For ticket reservations go to www.brownpapertickets.com, or for more information to www.balagan.org.
- David Edward Hughes