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Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 a.m.

Theater review
'Spring Awakening': powerful passion at Balagan

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

Balagan Theatre is the new anchor tenant of Seattle Central Community College's Erickson Theatre. The ambitious fringe troupe is starting its residency with an impressive blast of theatrical energy — and its most accomplished work to date.

This first locally produced version of the hit Broadway musical "Spring Awakening" is a gutsy undertaking.

The Tony Award-winning adaptation of Frank Wedekind's prescient, late-19th-century drama of sexual repression and adolescent torment requires a throng of singing actors who can croon, rock out and convey anguished innocence and the fury of rampaging hormones.

And the richly melodic score by composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist-librettist Steven Sater needs a confident mini-chamber orchestra to finesse its sweet lyricism and punky bombast.

Director Eric Ankrim successfully gathers much young talent in a less polished yet more immediate, intimate staging than the 2008 Broadway tour of "Spring Awakening" could offer.

Patrons on three sides of the compact stage get a close view of the troubled German schoolkids led by Melchior (Brian Earp), Moritz (Jerick Hoffer) and Wendla (Diana Huey).

True to Wedekind's play, these youths and their peers can't help but defy the rigidity of harshly moralistic parents, and of punitive teachers who drill them in Latin but keep them ignorant of basic human biology.

Denial leads to furtive explorations of autoerotism, sadomasochism and carnal coupling. And for scholarly, impetuous Melchior; confused, vulnerable Wendla; and angst-ridden Moritz, that results in tragedy.

But Wedekind's pointed social satire (embodied in an array of clueless, rather clownish adult figures, played by Jeannette d'Armand and Mark Waldstein) also ignites blistering humor. And Sheik's stomping group-rock anthems ("The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," "Totally F**ked") jolt us out of grim Teutonic torpor.

Ankrim's staging generally follows Michael Mayer's original production, with stellar lead work by Earp, a charismatic and fiercely intelligent Melchior whose animal impulses war with his cerebral nature.

Huey, who has a lovely voice, is a touchingly limpid Wendla. Kirsten deLohr Helland's visceral turn as a teen outcast, and Justin Huertas, as a shrewd kid who embraces his homosexuality, come on strong. The ensemble choral work and musical backup, under Kimberly Dare's direction, also merit praise.

Less satisfying is Hoffer's overly flamboyant portrayal of Mortiz, a luckless boy plagued by shame and guilt over his erotic dreams and longings. Hoffer has a strong voice and stage presence, but he mugs and poses more than need be, when dialing it back somewhat would add more emotional layers to Mortiz's unbalanced state and self destruction.

A few critics, notably the novelist Jonathan Franzen (a translator of Wedekind's German script), objected that the show's rock tunes, more romantic union of Wendla and Melchior, and hopeful finale ("Purple Summer") mitigate the play's darker tenor.

But the rock music, at least, taps into a post-Freudian understanding of the unconscious that's fully assimilated into modern psychology. When these late-19th-century kids whip out their mikes and tear into "The Bitch of Living," they can give voice to their inner psyches in ways that theatrically excite — and bridge a century-long generation gap to express primal needs that are undeniable, if still uncomfortable.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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