Review: The Bitch…of Loving Balagan’s “Spring Awakening”

Published by on January 9th, 2012
Review: Spring Awakening. Music by Duncan Sheik. Book & Lyrics by Steven Sater. Directed by Eric Ankrim. Musical Direction by Kimberly Dare. Produced by The Balagan Theatre. With Brian Earp, Diana Huey, Jerick Hoffer, Kirsten DeLohr Helland, Justin Huertas, Mark Waldstein and Jeannette d’Armand. Now through January 15 at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway.

Brian Earp (Melchior) and Diana Huey (Wendla) in Balagan's "Spring Awakening" Photo: Photo Credit: Andrea Huysing

2012 might be the year the world ends but at least we’re starting the year off on the right foot, at least theatrically. The very first new piece of theater out of the gate in 2012 for Seattle is the regional premiere of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s hit Broadway musical “Spring Awakening” based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind and produced by Balagan Theater. It’s also the first show for the Balagan in their new home at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, which is a huge step up for the company after a year of limbo and the loss of their prior space under Boom Noodle at 12th & Pike Street. So it’s kind of a big deal in more ways than one and it would have been a bitch to report that their inaugural production of a hugely popular musical was a disastrous disappointment…they would have been totally fucked.

Happily, I can report:

Spring has come early to Seattle. The Balagan’s production of “Spring Awakening” is a big, fat, jump and down and scream your head off hit, an energetically raucous yet poignant pop rock musical with infectious anthems that worm your way into your brain and powerhouse performances from a cast of ridiculously talented young actors. It’s one of those, “Dammit, can I find time to see it again?” shows and that seldom happens with me. It only plays for two weekends so you don’t want to dawdle in getting your tickets. It’s a breath of fresh air in one of the dreariest months of the year.

More raves after the JUMP!

The men of "Spring Awakening": L to R: Justin Huertas (Hanschen), Brian Earp (Melchior), Jerick Hoffer (Moritz), Mike Spee (Georg), Bryan Gula (Otto) Photo Credit: Andrea Huysing

And, to be fair, “Spring Awakening” is a bit of a ringer for the Balagan. It’s the local premiere of a show that struck a huge chord with young theater goers all over the world when it premiered on Broadway in 2007 and it won a slew of Tony Awards AND it introduced (for better or worse depending on your point of view) several “Glee” cast members including Lea Michelle and Jonathan Groff. Musical theater nerds born since the Reagan Administration worship this show, not only for the power ballads and kick ass rock anthems, but for its story of angsty German dealing with sexuality and the pain of passing from youthful naivete to the bitter realities of being an adult. There is a huge built in audience for this show.

But, even a hot property can flop if you have a sloppy production, but Balagan seems reborn in their spacious new home and the joy of having a ceiling height over 10 feet and a real lighting grid seems to have infected this show with an airy sense of power and purpose. Multi hyphenate theater craftsman Eric Ankrim steps off the stage for “SA” to take the directing helm (but pops back on stage for the 5th Avenue’s “Oklahoma” next month) and Mr. Ankrim does an excellent job of staging the intimate dramatic moments between the energetic production numbers, creating some well crafted and precisely placed staging with his actors. He’s aided by the excellent musical direction of Kimberly Dare and the charming choreography of Lexi Scamehorn and Kathryn Van Meter which refers to, but does not carbon copy the original Broadway work of dance legend Bill T. Jones. It’s a fresh energy infused take on the material that refreshes the material and enhances the performances of the actors.

But, the heart of “SA” belongs to the young actors playing the characters and singing those songs, and fortunately Balagan teamed up with local musical theater director Brandon Ivie, who served as Casting Director for this production, to find some of the most talented young musical theater performers in Seattle. There are two older actors who play all the “adult” roles and 11 speaking roles for younger performers (and an additional ensemble/chorus of eight) and all are well cast with a combination of newer talent and some young but very seasoned and well trained actors. But, the focus of “Spring Awakening” is on three characters: Melchior, the handsome, smart leader of the boys school; his best friend, Moritz, the troubled “square peg”, and Wendla, the innocent but questioning “girl next door” he has a crush on. As Melchior, Moritz and Wendla pass from childhood to maturity they have to deal with some troublesome questions involving sexuality, abuse, hypocrisy, and the rigid social structure of late 19th century Germany society….which also eerily parallels life for teens in 21st century America. It’s a tough time of life for teens and it doesn’t end well for many of the characters.

Things should end well for the three young actors cast in the primary roles. Brian Earp is a commanding leading man as Melchior, handling both the humor and the drama of the role with charm and charisma (and a strong set of chops.) The petite powerhouse known as Diana Huey captures both the inate innocence of the character as well as the burgeoning ardor of a young woman on the brink of discovering something new…and, also with a big, bold singing voice. The love scenes between the couple are both poignant and charged with adrenaline.

But, it’s the twitchy, questioning, neurotic bundle of nerves known as Moritz who tends to anchor the show, both with his words and deeds, and Jerick Hoffer makes the role his own with a performance that isn’t afraid to embrace the neurotic quirks of the character but never strays too far from the path to make the character a schlocky joke. Poor Moritz tries so hard to please everyone and live up to other people’s expectations that he never manages to find any happiness for himself, and Mr. Hoffer makes the character seem real and human and thus all the more tragic. It’s a terrific performance both for the acting and the singing and dancing in the production numbers and it’s one we’ll be talking about all year, it’s that good. (Many of us aren’t surprised at Mr. Hoffer’s singing/dancing talents; those in the know have figured out there’s a reason why you never see Jerick and Capitol Hill’s best drag performer, Jinkx Monsoon in the same room..)

L to R: Kirsten deLohr Helland (Ilse) and Jerick Hoffer (Moritz) in Balagan's "Spring Awakening". Photo: Pamela M. Campi Photography

And, while the dramatic moments are the glue that binds this show together, it’s the production numbers that resound long after you leave the theater. “Mama Who Bore Me”, “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” all had the audience itching to jump up on stage with the actors to share in the joy, but for me the best musical moment in “SA” is the duet between a depressed Moritz and a girl named Ilse who tries to cheer him up and encourages him to run away with her to the artist’s colony where she lives. The counterpoint between the two songs the couple sings together, “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Blue Wind” was a beautiful moment in the show and exquisitely performed by Mr. Hoffer and Kirsten deLohr Helland as the misfit, “punk” girl he likes.

“Spring Awakening” is played concert style with the 19th Century characters opening using microphones and performing anachronistically (which adds to the charm of the show). Set and lighting design were simple but effective though the lighting could have been a bit tighter. As in the original Broadway production, the costumes suggest late 19th century with a hint of 21st century steampunk and were well executed by Chelsea Blum, (though some of the boots/shoes did make me cringe a bit but to be fair, period looking footwear is a bitch to pull off on a small budget.)

Who’s it for? Young and young at heart musical theater fans who love to see cute kids singing and dancing and experiencing the joy and heartache of adolescence. Balagan fans. Duncan Sheik fans. The “Glee” crowd.

Psst: You should go NOW to see this great show, but if it doesn’t fit into your schedule for January, rumor has it the show will be back later in the year…

Disclosure: Yes, Balagan is an advertiser/media partner. No, they don’t “pay” for good reviews. Strangeways don’t work that way, Holmes. It it had sucked or had sucky elements, I would have let you know.

Word.


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