The Song of Purple Winter

Review of Spring Awakening at Balagan Theatre by Jenny S.

Photo by Pamela M. Campi Photography

From the same Broadway generation that birthed shows like RENT and Next to Normal came Spring Awakening, a black and blue pop opera based in the late 1800s about teenagers without the benefits of roomy back seats, the last rows in movie theaters, the space under the bleachers, or even health class. Kids who are ignorant of the most basic facts about reproduction. Based on the long-banned 1892 play of the same title by Frank Wedekind, the 2007 musical is famous for its embrace of the taboo: bottoms and breasts are bared in the eerie blue light, f-bombs are hurled at authority figures, actors simulate masturbation under spotlights, and the stage is mangled with the stamping of feet. On opening night at Balagan Theater’s new space in Capitol Hill (they recently became the resident company at Seattle Central Community College's Erickson Theater), patrons’ demeanor mirrored that of the characters on stage. The crowd’s age averaged 25, their piercing voices announced that they are ‘Theatre People’ (the European spelling is implied,) and they were buzzed. The space and crowd screamed Seattle Hipsters in a way that would make the Occupiers proud, but the beer bottles clinking morosely from the audience during a silent funeral scene punctured the atmosphere.

Brian Earp as Melchior and Diana Huey as Wendla
Photo by Andrea Huysing

Through song, movement, and sparse dialogue, 13 actors and 8 ensemble members tell a story of love and curiosity between two teenagers as it exemplifies the frustration of late 1800s German society in which sex is secret, children are sheltered, and discipline is paramount. Wendla (Diana Huey) and Melchior (Brian Earp) have been friends since childhood but were separated into their respective single-gendered schools and friend groups when they hit puberty. The teens face academic demands that put today’s SATs and AP exams to shame, and struggle to live in an oppressive and intellectually closed society. Eric Ankrim’s production takes few liberties with the original staging, but his choices are thoughtful and ultimately evocative. Actors trample the minimal set in black oxfords boots, wearing suits and dresses like straightjackets. Huey as Wendla is an enraged, sexed-up porcelain doll, her voice versatile and her commitment to her role constant. Earp, too, is engaged and alluring, one moment rational, the next overwhelmed by hormones. The rest of the ensemble is overall less than noteworthy in solos, but when the cast sings as one, Kimberly Dare’s musical direction comes to a perfect, folk rock fruition.

Too often, Spring Awakening is dismissed as angst without art, a musical for the braces and Clean and Clear set who have no greater worry than what kind of car they’ll get for their 16th birthday. In fact, the material of the show is very real: pressure from parents, domestic violence, sexual abuse, peer pressure, suicide, and abortion. These are not issues the world left behind in 1892. Often adults still justify horrific actions with, “Child, the lord won’t mind.” The Victorian era setting and dress juxtaposed with contemporary American music and speaking creates a world to which audience members can relate. The score by Duncan Sheik and Stephen Slater is stirring even if you never endured a Green Day phase. The winner of 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Spring Awakening is exciting, lovely, and uncomfortable in all of the right ways.

Spring Awakening
Balagan Theatre
Through January 15
Recommended for ages 17+
Must be at least 14 years old to purchase tickets
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