Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ensemble’s “Next to Normal” Deserves to Be A Hit

      Ensemble Theatre kicks off the fall season with Next to Normal, the 2010 Pulitzer prize-winning musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and this production points up the many strengths of Ensemble as well as some of its weaknesses.  Next to Normal is about a contemporary family dealing with mother Diana’s
bipolar disorder.  It’s a powerful telling of a story that probably resonates with many in the audience.  Director Lynn Meyers points out in the program of how it connected the cast while they rehearsed.  

     Scot Woolley has done an incredible job with the musical direction of this production and he’s realized it through four musicians.  On disc, the score sounded like The Who’s Tommy:  rock opera, yes, but bombastic.  Woolley has made the score sound much more intimate and emotionally nuanced.  It’s a beautiful score, though without any song that could become a standard, because it’s one of a piece.  It really is a score in the sense of an opera because it’s both sung through and reliant upon a number of themes that reassert themselves at different times in the story, rather than being a collection of songs with reprises.  Brian c. Mehring created a beautiful set that is both elegant and somehow able to look much larger than it actually is.  The aqua fluorescent lighting suggests the house, doctors’ offices, medical facilities, and the coldness and clarity that variously overtake Diana’s consciousness.  

     Meyers’ greatest strength as a director is in pacing.  Whether drama, comedy, or musical, her productions move.  However, there have been instances in the past, where I think her pacing has sometimes trumped the more disturbing elements in some of the scripts she directs.  That does not happen here.  However, the challenge that faces all directors is in casting and that works for the most part in Next to Normal.  Jessica Hendy and Mark Hardy are extraordinary as Diana and Dan.  She is vibrant, quicksilver, and both desperate and triumphant in dealing with her bipolar disorder and her family where he is loving, patient, lost, and a survivor.  Both she and Hardy have had extensive Broadway experience and give the type of detailed, truthful performances that are the height of craft and talent.  Even at the end, both Hendy and Hardy are both ambivalent yet hopeful.  The two of them give truth to the whole production and these are already and will be two of the best performances of the season.  Mike Schwitter, a senior at CCM, at first seems blandly dutiful, but he presents layers as the show progresses until he is both poignant and disturbing at the end.  He has the type of looks that will probably get him cast regularly in the future.  Charlie Clark is both hilarious and serious as two different doctors and there’s a beautifully staged and designed scene when he speaks with Diana before surgery where we see both their points of view simultaneously.

     Mia Gentile as the daughter and Nick Cearley as her eventual boyfriend are problematic.  Gentile has a strong voice and presence, but seems like the college student she recently was, rather than a secondary student.  The writing lets her down as well.  In her first scenes, her character doesn’t speak like a contemporary teenager, but like how a writer thought they sounded about a decade ago.   She’s also dressed dowdily in the second act so she sometimes looks older than her mother.  Cearley has been in a couple of other Ensemble productions and he always brings a sunny disposition to his performing.  However, he never seems any different from part to part.  He has strong physical mannerisms that overtake the characters he plays and he comes across as effeminate.  That isn’t an issue except for when playing a straight romantic role as he does here.  He doesn’t seem credible and the daughter’s romantic savior, though he sings and performs well.  However, by the end, both actors seem out of their depth and, rather than digging deeper emotionally or seamlessly faking such a process, they end up glib and exuberant, thereby missing the profounder truth of ambivalence and survival that the other actors find and realize.

     Ensemble has added extra performances and Saturday matinees to provide further opportunities to see this show, which deserves big audiences.

Eric and Neil said they celebrated a birthday in the play.  We all had some Aglamesis ice cream a couple of weeks ago for my 4th birthday.  It's my favorite and I licked out the container.

No comments: