There are several reasons Balagan Theatre isn’t letting anyone under the age of 14 into its production of the musical Spring Awakening, which made its regional premiere on Jan. 6. Namely, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, abortion, incest, suicide, and a graphic sex scene enacted in full view of the audience. All this made-for-TV controversy is packed into a two-hour musical based on an 1892 German play, whose characters are barely older than those banned from attending the Seattle performance.
In many ways, Spring Awakening is one of the most unexpected Broadway hits of the 21st century. After numerous workshops, seven years of rewrites and an off-Broadway stint, the musical opened on Broadway in late 2006. The original production racked up four Drama Desk Awards and eight Tonys, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor. The musical has fared far better than Frank Wedekind's original play, which wasn't staged until 1906, a full 15 years after it was written. Eleven years later, it made it to the U.S. for a single matinee performance. It was promptly labeled pornographic and, like the Balagan production, open only to a restricted audience.
Wendla (Diana Huey) is a typical teen caught between childhood and stifling 19th century bourgeois adulthood. Though described by her mother as “already in bloom,” she still likes to wear a frilly little girl dress and has absolutely no notion of where babies come from, other than a suspicion that they are not delivered via stork, as her mother has insisted.
Wendla and the other girls of the town give vent to their frustration in song; the first of a nearly innumerable playlist by Duncan Sheik. Like the rest to come, “Mama Who Bore Me” is a tuneful rock ballad with unexpectedly modern lyrics by Steven Sater that don’t quite jive with the high-minded dialogue that brackets the piece — also by Sater.
Across town, the boys fare no better. Buttoned up tight in black knee breeches, black suit jackets and black ties that seem to choke them, their Puritanical trappings cannot contain their adolescent angst (mainly sexual, with a dash of good old fashioned school-hating), expressed in their pounding chorus “The Bitch of Living.” Confounded by Latin verb conjugation as much as his recurring erotic dreams, “skittish and near aphasic” Moritz (Jerick Hoffer) can find no one to turn to for help, except his fellow 15-year-old, Melchior (Brian Earp).
Brilliant but jaded before his time, Melchior has learned what really goes on between men and women. “I got it out of books. But prepare yourself: It made an atheist out of me,” he cautions Moritz before offering him a how-to essay he composed, complete with helpful illustrations.
As the resident ingénue and brooding heartthrob respectively, Wendla and Melchior soon discover each other, first romantically (“The Word of Your Body”) and then sexually (“I Believe”). The hayloft setting of their tryst is straight out of a Harlequin novel, made a little icky by the chorus of teens who sit on the floor in a semi-circle like kindergarteners to watch, commenting in song as Melchior, buttocks bared for all to see, penetrates the not-quite-aware Wendla. Balagan claims that a large number of the 21-member cast is still in high school. It will be interesting to see if there is any blowback, once their parents take a gander at what they’ve been up to in rehearsal all these weeks.
Aided by asexual frocks and stature-shrinking short pants created by Costume Designer Chelsea Blum, Huey, Hoffer, Earp and the entire cast appear convincingly juvenile. Their ability to inhabit the awkwardness of adolescence allows them to sidestep the cliché of adults unconvincingly pretending to be teenagers, as seen in the movie Grease. A fair amount of this youthful expression comes through Alexis Scamehorn and Kathryn Van Meter’s choreography, which at times consists mainly of childish stamping of feet, slamming down of chairs, and the occasional simulated masturbation sequence.
Though repetitive and a bit too easy, the tantrum dances meld seamlessly with Director Eric Ankrim’s fluid staging. The relationships between the lifelong friends and neighbors of the small town setting are rendered by Ankrim in subtle passing encounters in homes and blatant rubbernecking out of windows.
Village life during the Deutsches Reich, as envisioned by Set Designer Ahren Buhmann, is cramped and cosseted, as protective as a nest and just as small. The performers are confined to a gray, bowl-shaped space that can barely contain their energy. They spill over the edges of the barren set again and again, only to be herded back to center stage by the versatile Mark Waldstein and Jeannette d'Armand, who play all the adult roles, from parents to pedagogues to preacher.
As superintendents of the burgeoning youth, the pair is tragically inept, spanning the spectrum from brutality to laxity, always with realistically mixed results. “To my mind, shame is nothing but the product of education,” Melchior asserts with a high schooler’s smugness. Unfortunately, none of his educators are able or willing to refute this.
As the romantic heart of the piece, Melchior is destined to fall in love with Wendla. But since the script is as much a condemnation of bourgeois society as a patented shocker, their relationship is marked by all-too-believable emotional transgressions, sexual bungling, and life-shattering consequences.
Foreshadowed by the tragic mirror images of physically and sexually abused Martha (Brianne Wylie) and runaway ruined girl Ilse (Kirsten deLohr Helland, with a blond punk froth of hair and a voice as golden), Melchior and Wendla are on a fast train to the dark side of turn of the century progress. In a world where adults see their offspring as raw material for a productive society, there’s no room for happy endings for young lovers.
If you go: Spring Awakening is Balagan’s first production in its new space, the Erickson Theatre on Capitol Hill. Having sold out every performance through its Jan. 15 closing date, Balagan announced that it will re-mount the production in mid-April. For dates and more information, visit balagantheatre.org.