Wednesday, March 28, 2012

REVIEW: Next to Normal (SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston)

Review of the Saturday, March 24 evening performance.  Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, MA. Starring Kerry A. Dowling, Christopher Chew, Michael Tacconi, Sarah Drake, Michael Levesque and Chris Caron.  Music Direction by Nicholas James Connell.  Directed by Paul Daigneault. Adult language, situations and drug use. 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.  Closes April 22, 2012.

Grade: A

The first time you see a show that you truly love, in a production other than the one that made you fall in love with it, can be a really dicey thing.  Can you look at it objectively?  Can you accept the inevitable differences?  Can you still love the show?  Well, as my regular readers know, one of my primary loves of a musical is next to normal.  I loved both casts on Broadway (and all of the understudies) and also loved the National Tour.  But now, as the show begins to take on new lives all around the country, I had to ask myself those questions before seeing my first "new" version.  And, thanks to The SpeakEasy Stage Company, my fears were not only allayed, but I found new things to love about my favorite musical!

"Just Another Day": Sarah Drake,
Christopher Chew and Kerry A. Dowling

Visually, this production bears no resemblance to the original production.  I suppose that has much to do with the fact that it is being performed in a black box space as opposed to a full proscenium space.  Don't misunderstand, the production values are top quality.  But as they say, "Necessity is the mother of invention."  Eric Levenson's scenic design, combined with Seaghan McKay's projections and Jeff Adelberg's rock and roll style lighting create a world that not only matches the themes and tone of the piece, but helps bring out symbolic details about character.  Tyler Kinney's costumes add final touches to the characters as well.  Truly, this production is of such quality that it is clear that the design team, the director and the cast have come together to create a seamless, cohesive production that makes the most of the space and the material.

On a platform made up of zigzagging ramps, topped with door-less walls that meet upstage in a skewed perspective, the set tells us wordlessly that whoever lives here is trapped and never fully in balance.  As the show progresses, the impressive projections serve many purposes.  A wall paper design tells us we are in an upper-middle class home; a series of lockers tells us we are in a school hallway; and piano keys represent a music practice room.  But other than signifying locations, they also tell of the state of Diana, the mother suffering from a multitude of mental and emotional issues: the wallpaper becomes busier and blurred during a mental episode; visits to her doctors find the walls covered with terminology and test results of studies about grief, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.  The more acute the symptoms, the more crowded the walls become.  During "My Psychopharmacologist and I," the litany of drugs Diana has (or will have) to take starts to list on the screen, followed by photos of actual Xanax and Valium and other drugs that come raining down the walls, effectively overwhelming the patient.

"My Psychopharmacologist and I": The Company

And the white panels, firmly in place, keep Diana home-bound and trapped by her own mind, as she teeters up and down those ramps and clinging to every piece of furniture with a disquieting desperation that radiates off the stage in emotional waves.  Occasionally, they open up on their own, revealing towers of rock concert style lights flashing in pulsating patterns that mirror the confusion of Diana.  Other times, Gabe, a grown vision of Diana's long-lost son, opens those panels in an effort to lure her to the other side.  And the concept is fully played out as those same walls and patterns close in tightly around the rest of the family who tries valiantly not to spiral out of control, all while trying to cope with the tragic consequences of ECT treatments, unwelcome moments of clarity, a marriage falling apart and having a child come dangerously close to repeating her mother's legacy.

Directed by Paul Daigneault, the production is as excess-free and tight as the Pulitzer Prize-winning book and score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey.  Wisely, his direction allows the script and lyrics to do most of the work, rarely getting anywhere close to overwrought or anything less than genuine.  Daigneault has also created some amazing stage pictures that continue to haunt me days later.  One such moment is the full company number, "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling," in which the doctor hypnotizes Diana, ultimately leading to the non-family characters commenting from the far sides of the stage, while the family moves into place with daughter and husband pleading for normalcy behind Diana, with the source of her troubles, Gabe, unmoving at her feet and harmonizing with his mother's pleas to catch her as she falls.  It is a tableau that wordlessly tells us where every character is at this crucial turning point.  Similarly poignant staging happens during Gabe's "I'm Alive," and "Didn't I See This Movie?"  The staging and the set design really affect the use and meaning of the enigmatic character of Gabe, clarifying who and what he is and adding a very intense immediacy and often chilling feel to several scenes.

"I Miss the Mountains": Kerry A. Dowling

The very palpable feeling that these actors and their director are a true company, a solid unit, adds a very interesting layer to this remarkable musical.  While Diana remains the centerpiece of the work, this production (and its terrific cast) relieves her of some of the burden of carrying the show by making the rest of the family as intense and complex as she is. This is in no way a slight to Kerry A. Dowling, who gives a stellar performance as Diana.  While she gives the character a lot of detail - quirky movements, desperate clinging to anything tangible, painful but loving looks to all of her family - she also very successfully modulates "the crazy," effectively letting us see the ebb and flow between manic episodes and near lucidity.  She also sings beautifully and with a wide range, going all out "rock star" as they wheel her off for shock therapy, sad resignation as she leaves her family behind, and handling the intense sing-speak required as she confronts her doctor after finding the strength to reject further treatment.

Henry, the good-hearted stoner boyfriend, is played by the charming and realistically sweet Michael Levesque.  This tall, all-American young man sings well and provides a strong anchor for his increasingly unstable girlfriend.  Aside from looking maybe a tad too old, Levesque gives a refreshing take on the part.  Less successful is Chris Caron, who plays Doctors Madden and Fine.  He is not bad - far from it - but he teeters on the brink of over doing it, affecting a voice style akin to a local news anchor rather than a firm, but reassuring medical professional.  Still, he sings well, and in later scenes, he seems to scale back the intensity.

Chris Caron and Kerry A. Dowling

Sarah Drake and Michael Levesque

Christopher Chew, as Dan, is really wonderful, walking the fine line between crumbling husband/father and weak patriarch very carefully and well.  He, like the rest of the company, sings well, and finds moments of humor naturally, and plays the more obvious moments of realization with nuance.  It is heartbreaking to watch his grasp on his family slip away, as you see in his face that he knows it can't be helped, and yet he blames himself, anyway.  His duet with Diana, "How Could I Ever Forget?," brought tears to my eyes, and sniffles could be heard throughout the theatre both then, and when he is left speechless following Diana's departure.  It is easy to see from this performance why Mr. Chew is an acclaimed member of the Boston theatre community.  The young woman playing the daughter, Natalie, has created a character unlike her Broadway counterparts.  Instead of paralleling Diana in speech, motion and craziness, Sarah Drake goes in the opposite direction, doing everything she can to NOT be like her mother, which makes her inevitable brush with similar issues all the more devastating when she realizes history could repeat itself.  Vocally, she does a fine job with "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," and dramatically, she does superior work in the book scenes she shares with Henry. (Their three "Hey" songs in act two are a study in teen relationships and still manage to be sincere and more grown up due to the circumstances.  Truly excellent, too, is their duet "Perfect for You.")

Due in part to the staging that brings him more to the forefront, but even more due to his remarkably stunning performance, Michael Tacconi, as Gabe, is a revelation here.  Write down his name - this guy is going to be BIG.  His natural presence makes your eye gravitate to his every move.  His singing voice is wonderfully expressive and his belt is impressive.  To his credit, he doesn't try to replicate the performance so vividly recorded by Aaron Tveit (or Kyle Dean Massey for that matter).  Instead, he finds his own pauses, emphases and modulations.  The staging requires that his presence be more upfront if for no other reason than the unavoidable close proximity he has to the other characters.  And yet he never steals the scenes from others, and still maintains a menacing, spectral presence.  As great as his voice and acting are, though, I have to admit that it is his winning smile that makes you trust him a little more than you should, and his burning, large brown eyes trap you in their glare.  Ultimately, it is Mr. Tacconi's intensity that makes you understand why Diana can't let him go, and also why it is a matter of life and death that she must.  His is a remarkable star turn in a company full star turns.

Michael Tacconi, Kerry A. Dowling and Christopher Chew

The SpeakEasy Stage Company specializes in bringing premieres to Boston.  Seeing next to normal with an audience unaware of what they are about to see reminds me of the first time I saw the show.  This time around, it was wonderful to hear the gasps of realization, the sniffles of sad circumstances brought to life in this intimate space, and even the "ahs" that greet the moment when it becomes crystal clear what the title of the show means.  The entire experience, from the marvelous facility, to the first-rate professional production and performance, puts SpeakEasy at the top of my list of favorite regional theatres.  If you live in Boston, how lucky you are!  And if you don't, but get the chance to visit Beantown, be sure to add this venue to your must-see list, no matter what show they are presenting.  You won't be sorry.

(Photos courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company.  Photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.)

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