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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Yorkey’

Next to Normal
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Edward Coffield
Insight Theatre Company
June 9, 2017

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John Flack, Debby Lennon, Spencer Davis Milford Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is opening its 10th season in a new venue, and starting off with a highly regarded, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Next to Normal. This small-cast show is an ideal fit for the .Zack in Grand Center. It’s a challenging, highly emotional show with a demanding score, and Insight has assembled an excellent cast, presenting the show in a somewhat different manner than I have seen before, and it works very well.

When I first heard of the casting for this production, I was expecting it to be good, especially since the lead role of Diana Goodman would be played by last year’s St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner for Best Actress in a Musical, Debby Lennon. And Lennon isn’t the only seasoned performer in this excellent cast. John Flack as Diana’s husband Dan, Ryan Scott Foizey as the doctors, and Spencer Davis Milford, as the Goodmans’ son Gabe have all done some excellent work in St. Louis theatre. They are joined by extremely promising newcomers Libby Jasper as the Goodmans’ conflicted teenage daughter Natalie, and Max Bahneman as Natalie’s on-again/off-again boyfriend Henry. It’s a story that focuses largely on Diana’s experiences with trying to manage her mental illness and her complicated family relationships, and also on Natalie’s struggle to deal with her own issues involving her family and her future plans. There isn’t a whole lot else I can say without spoiling too much, because this is a show that depends a lot on twists and revelations, although the central family relationships are at its core, with a strong musical score that ranges from more upbeat rock-based numbers to slower, emotional ballads. It’s a challenging work, and when staged well as it is here, it’s riveting.

This production is a little different than others I’ve seen, in terms of staging and vocals. Staging-wise, the pacing is a little slower than previous productions, with some of the line-deliveries being a little more subdued. The plot build-up seems to be more gradual as a result, and despite a slow-ish start on “Just Another Day”, the performances are excellent and well-timed. The set, designed by Robbie Ashurst, and the lighting by Charlotte Webster are more colorful as well, with an emphasis on a series of windows of varied hues hanging in the background, and aside from one slightly raised platform, most of the action takes place at stage level, also contrary to other performances I’ve seen. The costumes by Laura Hanson are appropriate and well-suited to the characters, and there’s also excellent musical direction by Ron McGowan, with a slightly different sound reflective of Lennon’s more operatic voice.

The cast is excellent, led by Lennon in a sympathetic, emotional performance as Diana, with powerful vocals on songs like “I Missed the Mountains”, “I Dreamed a Dance”, and “You Don’t Know”. Flack is also excellent as Diana’s supportive but increasingly exasperated husband, Dan. His scenes with Lennon carry a lot of power, and he brings a great deal of emotional energy to his songs, especially “I’ve Been” late in Act 1. There are also strong performances from the rich-voiced Jasper as the determined but conflicted Natalie, and by Bahneman as her sweet, persistent stoner boyfriend Henry. Milford is outstanding and full of energy as the dynamic, influential and mysterious Gabe as well, excelling especially on Gabe’s most well-known number “I’m Alive”. There’s also excellent work from Foizey as the two doctors, particularly the “rock star” Doctor Madden, although he does sound a little strained at times.

Next to Normal is a powerful, challenging show. It’s a character study as well as a story of relationships, and strong casting and musicality are essential. Those aspects are well represented in this memorable production from Insight Theatre. Although it takes a few minutes to really get going, once it does it’s engaging, fascinating, and highly affecting. It gets Insight’s new season in its new home off to an excellent start.

Ryan Scott Foizey, Spencer Davis Milford, Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Next to Normal at the .Zack Theatre until June 25, 2017.

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If/Then
Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif
The Fox Theatre
March 15, 2016

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

I think most people have “what if” moments in their lives. Maybe it’s that class in college that you wish you had taken, or that person whose invitation you wish you had accepted. How would your life have been different if you had made one simple choice differently? The musical If/Then, currently on stage at the Fox Theatre, takes questions like that and makes a story out of them–or more precisely, two stories running concurrently.  It’s an intriguing concept that’s been given an inventive production, based on the Broadway staging. It’s not always easy to follow, but it’s an impressive production, and extremely entertaining.

If/Then‘s central figure is Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), who is seen wondering about a particular day in New York City’s Central Park. Having just returned to the city to start over after a failed marriage and 12 years out West, Elizabeth is presented with a dilemma–two friends, and which one to follow. Does she stay in the park with her new neighbor Kate (Tamyra Gray), or does she leave to join her former college boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp) in a protest he’s organizing? The show presents both scenarios side-by-side, with Elizabeth going by the nickname “Liz” when she stays with Kate, and by “Beth” when she goes with Lucas. The name difference actually helps the audience to follow the plot, as Elizabeth’s life verges in potentially confusing directions, and the two timelines both feature some of the same characters but also others who are unique to one particular path. Most importantly in the “Liz” plot is Josh (Matthew Hydzik), a doctor just returned from a military tour overseas, who becomes her love interest in that plot while in the “Beth” plot, she accepts a high-powered city planning job and becomes involved in more complicated personal relationships. There isn’t much else I can say about the story that won’t spoil it, but I will say that the fates of Elizabeth’s friends are also affected by the divergence in her own paths, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

This isn’t an entirely original idea. There have been a few movies and stories with similar concepts, but this one has the team responsible for one of my favorite modern musicals, Next to Normal, behind it, and that definitely got my attention. Still, the music here isn’t as memorable as it is in Next to Normal, and the story can be hard to follow at times. I can’t even name many of the songs after seeing the show without having to consult the program. The show also seems to be suggesting a “moral” that is somewhat problematic, although explaining that in too much detail would spoil the ending. I’ll just say that one of the endings seems happier based on whether love or career is put first in Elizabeth’s life.

The casting is solid, with strong performances from the leads and the ensemble. Burns is a likable protagonist, with a strong, belty voice that’s occasionally too reminiscent of her Broadway and tour predecessor Idina Menzel. Still, Burns portrays both the “Liz” and “Beth” sides of Elizabeth’s story well, and her chemistry with Hydzik’s amiable, charming Josh is particularly convincing. Gray is full of energy and confidence as Kate, and she’s supported well by Janine DiVita as Kate’s girlfriend, Anne. Anthony Rapp, reprising his Broadway role as Lucas, is strong in both timelines, one of which gets him a kind doctor boyfriend named David (Marc Delacruz). Lucas, in fact, probably has the most significant change depending on the timeline, and Rapp portrays these differences well. There’s also a strong ensemble portraying various characters in support of both timelines.

Staging-wise, this show makes  strong visual impression, but also somewhat generic. The set, designed by Mark Wendland, is a modular collection of beams, bridges, and modular set pieces that move about as needed, with a great use of projections designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully, especially in the suggestion of moving Subway trains. The park setup is more “general park” than Central Park, really, and the costumes, by Emily Rebholz, are suitably New York-ish. It’s a somewhat generalized version of New York that works for the show, but isn’t particularly distinctive.

Overall, I would say If/Then is interesting and entertaining, although it tends to be a little confusing as well. It’s not as brilliant or memorable as Next to Normal, but it’s a good concept and generally well presented. Most of all, the great cast is what makes this show worth seeing. Your life probably won’t change radically if you choose not to see it, but it if you do, it would be a good choice.

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

The National Tour of If/Then runs at the Fox Theatre until March 27, 2016.

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Next to Normal
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre, St. Louis
February 28, 2013

n2n set

Lights go up on a stage set with a framework representing the inside of a house, assembled in a jumbled fashion from elements of one family’s life.  It all looks well-ordered at first glance, and then the odd elements catch the eye. There are lamps that stand right-side-up, hang upside-down, or stick out sideways from wall beams.  There is a door on its side where the roof should be, and boxes are stacked neatly in rows, while hundreds of small pill bottles decorate the scene everywhere.  In the foreground are four chairs, three neatly arranged in a line and one on the floor on its side.  This is reflection of the fact that not all is as it first seems with the show’s central characters, Diana Goodman (Kimi Short) and her family–husband Dan (Jeffrey M. Wright), son Gabe (Ryan Foizey) and daughter Natalie (Mary Beth Black). This show takes us on a tour through the lives of a family dealing with mental illness, relationship struggles and more, with an extremely well-written script, many excellent songs and New Line’s top-notch cast.

As Diana, Short gives a wonderfully measured, grounding performance that showcases the character’s energy as well as her confusion, fear and regret. It is something of an “every woman” performance in that she makes the character easy to relate to, even for those of us who do not share her struggles with mental illness.  With all of the character’s ups and downs, Short takes the audience with her along the way and has us hoping for a good outcome to her quest for answers and healing.  Her voice is strong and reminiscent of Alice Ripley’s from the Broadway cast album. She brings real strength and sympathy to songs like the wistful “I Miss the Mountains” and the angry “You Don’t Know”.  Her Diana is the center of this production, and the rest of the cast works very well with her.

As Diana’s stable-but-overwhelmed husband Dan, Wright lends excellent support, and makes Dan’s struggles to cope with the chaos as well as his own journey of grief, denial, and finally hope compelling. Their teenage daughter Natalie is an aspiring classical pianist who has her own struggles in dealing with relating to both of her parents as well as her sweet, affable slacker/stoner boyfriend Henry (Joseph McAnulty), and she is remarkably portrayed by high-school junior Mary Beth Black, an extremely promising young performer who has a very bright future ahead of her.  In addition to her very strong vocals, Black brings out all the sympathy in Natalie’s situation while at the same time very believably portraying the character’s confusion, frustration and anger, as well as her desire for a more genuine relationship with her parents in the midst of all the drama.  Natalie’s journey of self-discovery parallels Diana’s in several significant ways, and Black’s scenes with Short (including a trippy fantasy sequence in “Wish I Were Here”) are a particular highlight of this production.  Black also has great chemistry with McAnulty, and the off-and-on romance between Henry and Natalie is both intriguing and endearing.  I also liked how the Natalie/Henry relationship was contrasted with that of Diana and Dan especially in the second act in “Why Stay?”/”A Promise”, which is perfectly played by all four performers and is only one highlight of many in this beautifully realized production.

Rounding out the cast with equally outstanding performances are Ryan Foizey as the enigmatic son, Gabe, and Zachary Allen Farmer in a dual role as two of Diana’s doctors.  Gabe is in many ways the key to the conflict in this show, and Foizey is excellent, bringing all the charm, menace and mystery that the role requires, and his voice is strong and clear, bringing physical and emotional energy to numbers like “I’m Alive” and haunting magnetism to the slower numbers like “There’s a World”.  Farmer, provides strong support as the two very different doctors, displaying a strong voice and handling the “rock-star” fantasy sequences particularly well.

This show has lately become very popular with regional theatres, and New Line is the first St. Louis company to perform it.  It’s one of my favorite new musicals, and I was excited to be able to see a local production after having seen the national tour at the Fox two years ago with its giant multi-level set and slicker production values.  This production is smaller and more intimate, and that works very well as a way for bringing the audience into the action and emotions of the characters.  The set by Scott L. Schoonover doesn’t have all the height or scale of the Broadway and tour set, but it suits this production extremely well, with lots of depth and little details (like the the askew furniture and pill bottles) that may not be evident as first but become more noticeable upon further scrutiny.  The set provides just the right backdrop for this enthralling drama, and there is also an excellent band conducted by Music Director Justin Smolik which lends dynamic support to the truly spectacular cast.

It’s only three months into this year, and I’ve already fulfilled one of my New Year’s resolutions–to explore some more of St. Louis’s excellent local theatre companies.  New Line’s Next to Normal has impressed me in so many ways that I hope to see many more of this company’s productions in the future. Aside from a minor issue with uneven sound (that I’m sure will be corrected as the run continues), this was about as close to a perfect production of this show as I could imagine.  I encourage all my St. Louis readers to check it out.

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Next to Normal

US National Tour

The Fox Theatre, St. Louis

April 13 and 16, 2011

If you live in or anywhere near St. Louis, just go see this show. It’s that good.  I had been waiting to see this production for almost a year, after checking clips online out of curiosity (because I had read that one of my favorite musical theatre performers liked it), and then buying the cast album and simply falling in love with it.   I love musical theatre, and I have many favorite shows, but this one is just really special.  I will try my best to coherently explain why while keeping the review as spoiler-free as possible.

First, here’s a clip (from the original Broadway cast), in  a concert setting, of one of my favorite songs:

This production, the tour based on the Broadway production directed by Michael Greif, is worth all the hype you might read and more.  This is a show that almost defies description–it’s a musical (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt) about a family where the mother is suffering from bi-polar disorder, but it’s a lot more than that.  It’s a show about  people, and real everyday issues that are dealt with by many families, including  parental favoritism, ideals and dreams vs. reality, the dilemma of trying to protect loved ones vs. allowing them to make their own mistakes, and the strain of trying to keep up the appearance of perfection when the reality of life is anything but perfect.  It also has such a strong score and script that blend seamlessly together to tell this very intense, gripping story.

I was able to see two performances of this show, and as a result I saw both the regular cast members and the standbys as Diana, the mother, and her husband Dan.  On Wednesday night, I saw Pearl Sun and Jason Watson (the standbys) and on Saturday I saw Alice Ripley and Asa Somers (the regulars), and all were excellent, except I have to admit I’m a bit concerned about Ripley’s voice.  She originated the role on Broadway and won a well-deserved Tony Award, and she is wonderful in the role, especially as an actress, but her voice sounded very strained and hard to understand in places, and that was sometimes a distraction.  Sun on the other hand, had a clear and strong voice and acted the role very well, although she didn’t have quite the commanding presence and manic edge of Ripley.  With Watson and Somers, I think Watson had the stronger voice, but both actors turned in excellent performances–with Somers as more of a gentle, weary Dan and Watson a little more assertive.  It’s a testimony to the strength of this production and cast that the show works so well with different performers in the main roles.

Emma Hunton, as daughter Natalie, brings real depth to her role as a teenage girl who feels overwhelmed by circumstances and neglected by both parents in different ways.  She’s at turns sarcastic, pessimistic, angry, and surprisingly hopeful. Preston Sadleir as her boyfriend Henry provides solid support.  Son Gabe is an enigmatic figure well-played here by Curt Hansen.  He has the strong, acrobatic voice, boyish good looks, and tons of energy and stage presence.   Jeremy Kushnier, in a dual role as two of Diana’s doctors, is also excellent, with a strong voice that serves the rock-based score well.

This is such a perfectly constructed show, with elements of comedy, drama, realism and fantasy blended together to tell the story in a unique way.  There are some great songs, such as “Superboy and the Invisible Girl”, “I Miss the Mountains”, “I’m Alive”, “Light” and many more, but the songs are integrated into the script so well that it’s hard to imagine most of them sung out of context.  The songs serve the script, and the script serves the songs.  The show is also very cleverly staged, on an impressive multi-level set that allows for many scenes to be going on at one time.  It also provides the opportunity for some very athletic choreography especially for the character of Gabe.  The set also allows the show’s band to be onstage with the cast.   The lighting, costumes and sound were also top-notch, and added to both the realism and fantasy of the piece.

This show  has such truth in it, even if you don’t have the same issues as those of this family.    This is a show about mental illness, yes, and it is very specific in dealing with that issue,  but it’s also about hopes and dreams, and regrets, and just the everyday struggles of an imperfect family learning how to love and support one another.  It presents the characters as real people. There are no black-and-white, simple answers.  This show takes the characters on a journey, and as the show ends, they are all still on it.  There are some resolutions, but a lot is left open-ended as well, just like real life.   There is much that can be related to in this show, and the script, music and performances all worked together to make for an extraordinary theatrical experience.

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