Balagan Theatre gleefully takes on Joss Whedon's Internet cult hit, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."


Flawed superheroes are hardly news. By now, the whole world knows Batman is slightly deranged, and beneath Spider-Man’s swaggering persona there’s a reticent kid.

But flawed villains — ah, that’s something else. No one captures the moral or emotional dualities of monster and mythic warrior alike better than Joss Whedon, whose “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” gave us a heroine darkened by experience and a sadistic vampire, Spike, whose love for her turned him into Sir Lancelot.

Whedon cultists hope their man gets to explore even more character ambiguities when he directs the Marvel Comics-based movie “The Avengers.” Until then, there’s a lot to love about the dubious scoundrel at the heart of Balagan Theatre’s wonderful adaptation of Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”

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Balagan’s successful new show is based on the author’s hit Internet musical from 2008, cowritten by Whedon’s brothers Zack and Jed, and the latter’s writer-actress wife, Maurissa Tancharoen.

While faithful to the original “Dr. Horrible’s” goofy but ultimately poignant spirit, this stage version directed by Eric Ankrim and M. Elizabeth Eller cuts loose here and there with delicious self-awareness. A musical prelude by the production’s announcer (Bill Williams) is a nonsense song about being nothing more than a prelude. Act Two begins with an equally solipsistic (and very funny) tune featuring several actors competing for audience sympathy and appreciation.

But the main event is a deliriously sharp rendering of “Dr. Horrible’s” story and songbook, based on characters whose chiaroscuro inner lives undercut easy stereotyping as hero or villain. Ankrim is comically inspired as the eponymous evildoer, an allegedly mad inventor whose crimes are essentially auditions for a seat at the all-nasty Evil League of Evil.

Yet Dr. Horrible’s video blogging (a low-tech affair that ingeniously supplements Ankrim’s masterful monologues) reveals the more reserved boy-man, Billy, beneath his arrogant plans for world domination. Billy awkwardly responds to fan e-mail on his blog, has a loser buddy named Moist (fine work by Brian Lange), and is too shy to approach the girl of his dreams, Penny (Annie Jantzer), at the laundromat.

Destiny brings Billy and Penny together as friends but plays a cruel trick by turning her into the lover of Dr. Horrible’s narcissistic nemesis, a creepy superhero named Captain Hammer (Jake Groshong). Jantzer and Groshong are perfect as Ankrim’s coleads, mining the perversities of their love triangle for rich ironies as well as laughs.

As ethical boundaries between self-interested hero and unexpectedly selfless villain blur, the show takes on a subdued strain of tragedy beneath the fun.

This production gets the tricky balance exactly right, leading to a final scene that plays like a somber punch line.

“Dr. Horrible” is Balagan’s penultimate production in its current, Capitol Hill space. The company next co-produces Eric Lane Barnes’ “Rapture of the Deep” before moving on to its next (undisclosed as of this writing) location.

Tom Keogh: