At Seattle's Balagan Theatre, a rock musical about the trials of teendom

Apr 23, 2012

Three months after a sell-out run, “Spring Awakening” is back in a production at  Seattle’s Balagan Theatre.

The coming-of-age rock musical, which won a Tony for Best Musical in 2007, is about teenagers and the torment and tragedy that can sometimes happen in their lives. The musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater was adapted from a German play written in the 1890s. It looks at the curiosity as well as the angst of teens living in a repressed society. The material is serious and sometimes explicit: sex, child abuse, suicide, abortion.

But it's the perfect show for a young theater company that wants to attract a younger theater crowd. When the rights for amateur productions were made available, Balagan jumped at the chance to stage it.

"I think pushing the boundaries of what we’re used to seeing on stage is always healthy for the theater art form," says Jake Groshong, Balagan's founder and executive director. "But I do think by putting something sexy or dark or even a little violent it creates a little intrigue to get us in."

Groshong worked as an actor in Seattle for several years. Then he moved to Israel and when he moved back to Seattle six years ago, he discovered one of his favorite venues -- Empty Space Theatre -- was about to shut down after 36 years.

Empty Space was known for producing provocative new work. Groshong wanted Balagan  to put on edgy material. But he also had another reason for starting a theater in 2006:

"There was a type of theater company that was missing, particularly one that appealed to a younger audience. Not children's theater, but more the teenagers, the college students, the under 50s, even."

"Spring Awakening" was a huge hit for the theater when it opened in January. The run would have been extended but the season had already been planned out. So it decided it would bring back the show for two weekends this month. (The production will also play in Mount Vernon at the Lincoln Theatre from  May 4 to 6.)

Restaging the production, though, meant a unique opportunity for director Eric Ankrim: His two original leads were already committed to other shows. He'd have to replace them. But instead of finding another pair of twentysomething actors to play teenagers, he wanted to give the roles to actual teens.

"I think that ultimately youth is a character in the show. If we see people pretending to be young there’s an element missing," Ankrim says.

"Musical theater is an art form that tends to give leading roles to people in their 30s and character roles to people in their 50s. There aren’t many shows that are dominated by teenage performers."

Ankrim said the challenges of casting teens included finding actors who could handle the level of singing that's demanded, as well as the intensity of the material.

The characters are 14 and 15 years old. The actors playing those roles are Tori Gresham, 17, is from Yakima and plays Wendla. Bryan Gula is 18 and lives in Gig Harbor. He had a minor role in the first production. This time he's been cast as Wendla's boyfriend, Melchior.

"When people ask me what the show is about I tell them that it is the journey of all of these teens as they not only find themselves, they go through their own personal emotional journey," Gula says.

"Adolescent suicide, beating... we still have that today. and putting it out there in a musical for people to see is so important for them to be able to grapple with."