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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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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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When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, my Mom would occasionally take the family to a show at a local dinner theatre. I still remember the one time when our waiter informed us that he would be playing Curly in that evening’s performance of Oklahoma! Actors doubled as waiters at this particular dinner theatre. Our waiter, whose name was Kevin, was not the principal Curly—he was the understudy. Kevin was young, possibly only a year or two out of college.  He was good-looking and very personable, and we hadn’t heard of the actor who was supposed to play Curly anyway, so we had no objections whatsoever. When the show started, my family was cheering for Kevin, and he turned out to be a wonderful Curly. His youth actually added to the characterization, and I was happy to see this young actor get a chance to show what he could do. I wasn’t disappointed in the least that I hadn’t seen the main actor. Now, of course this was a dinner theatre and not Broadway or the West End, but that experience stayed with me over the years to the point where I have come to truly respect and appreciate understudies, and I have seen some great ones since that I have never regretted seeing instead of the billed actors.

I’m writing this post as a direct reaction to a conversation I saw on Twitter yesterday. Tam Mutu (@tammutu), a wonderful actor and singer who is currently playing Javert in Les Miserables in the West End, asked a series of questions about theatregoers’ opinions of understudies and received a variety of responses. I did respond to one of his questions, but because it was Twitter and limited to 140 characters, I think my response was inadequate. I also looked at a lot of the responses and saw the whole dialogue that developed, and I thought this would be a subject worth writing about. I’m not going to go over all the Twitter responses, but I’m going to respond to some of Mr. Mutu’s questions individually and also try to explore the whole idea of understudies and why I think they are so worthy of respect.

Tam Mutu’s first question was (to paraphrase) “would you rather see a show with an ill principal actor or a healthy understudy?” To this question, my answer is easy—a healthy understudy. This is for the sake of both the principal and the understudy, because if a performer is ill, he or she should be resting. Singing through a cold can damage the vocal cords, and it’s much better if a performer sits out a few performances rather than hurting his or her voice in the long run. Also, understudies are trained performers who work hard and are just as dedicated as the principals. Some understudies have even been given their big breaks because they went on for the scheduled star on particular night, and a producer happened to be in the audience to see that understudy give an amazing performance. Shirley MacLaine in The Pajama Game on Broadway is a famous example.

Now, the word “star” brings up another issue for me. I often wonder if the reason a lot of people get disappointed when the understudy is on is that there is a perception that they are somehow getting “second best” because the understudy isn’t as well-known. I don’t think in terms of “stars” when I see shows generally, unless it’s a legend like Bernadette Peters or Michael Crawford, but the fact is that even legendary veterans like these are human beings and they can get ill. It’s much better for them if they take a little bit of time off and get healthy, and in the meantime, the audience potentially gets a real treat, like when I saw Anything Goes on Broadway and both “star” performers—Sutton Foster and Joel Grey—were off. That allowed me to discover two wonderful performers in Tari Kelly and Robert Creighton, and I did not for one minute feel like I was getting “second best”. In fact, when Tari Kelly came to St. Louis to star in the Muny’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was excited because I had already seen her on Broadway and knew what a great performer she was.

This also brings me to another question Tam Mutu asked on Twitter, which was about what a person would do if they went to see their favorite performer in a show and they were off. That’s about the only time when I would possibly be tempted to exchange my tickets, especially if I had traveled a very long way to see a particular performer (as I have done a few times). I might postpone a special trip if it involves flying, but if that’s not possible or if I were already there I would most likely see the show. I have never exchanged my tickets because an understudy was on and probably wouldn’t in that case either, because I would want to see the show and the rest of the cast, but I can’t say the thought wouldn’t cross my mind. I do think that after seeing the show with the understudy, if it’s possible I would try to see it again later in the week (depending on how long I was in that city) if the favored performer was back in. I don’t blame other people for exchanging their tickets, though, especially if they can’t afford to see the show twice. It’s not about seeing “the star” in that case. It’s about seeing someone you really admire as a performer (whether they’re famous or not) and made an extra effort to see, and it’s understandably a letdown if you get there and find out the understudy is on, no matter how great the understudy is. Even though I probably would still see the show, my response to Mr. Mutu when he asked if people would change their tickets if they knew in advance that a performer would be off was basically “it depends on who it is”, and that is why. There is no disrespect whatsoever intended toward the very hardworking understudies or the performers who take time off for much-needed recovery from illness.

In addition to favorite performers, sometimes there’s just a performance that is so talked-about that you really want to see it, and so when there’s an understudy on, the disappointment is understandable. I wouldn’t change my tickets in that case either, though, because that has happened to me. When the Next to Normal tour came to St. Louis, starring the Tony-winning Alice Ripley as Diana, I have to admit I was disappointed when I looked at the cast board upon arriving at the theatre and saw that Ripley was off. Once I sat down and watched the show I was very glad I got the chance to see her standby, Pearl Sun, give an outstanding performance. I did get an opportunity for discount tickets to see the show again, so I bought them in hopes of seeing Ripley, and when I did I was glad I had seen both performers because they each brought something different to the role. I also saw Jason Watson, the standby for the role of Dan, the first time I saw the show, and thought he was wonderful as well. It was a great experience to get to see the show twice with different leads each time. I understand that some people won’t be able to do that, but I was happy that I did.

I guess the point of all of this is to say that talented performers are everywhere, and just because someone isn’t a “star” or a household name doesn’t mean they’re not a fantastic performer and possibly (like Shirley MacLaine and others) a future star. Also, when you get to a show and find that the understudy is on, while I do understand being disappointed if the principal was someone you really wanted to see, please try not to think you’re getting “second best”.  The understudy just may surprise you. Also, it helps to remember that actors are not super-human and that they do get ill occasionally.  It’s understandable to be disappointed, but please don’t blame them when they need to take a few days off. Thanks to Tam Mutu for asking such thought-provoking questions and I really look forward to seeing him as Javert when I see the show in October. If unfortunately he is off, though, I’m sure his understudy will be great as well. Thanks also to all the wonderful understudies I have seen over the years, starting with Kevin at that dinner theatre years ago. Great talent is great talent, whether the performer is a “star” or not, and these unsung heroes have proven that year after year.

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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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So, for many years many people have told me “Michelle, you should start a blog”, because I like to write, and I guess people think I’m good at it.  I also love theatre, both musical and non-musical, and I’ve always thought it would be fun to write a blog about the shows I see, as well as my general thoughts about theatre.  Well, at long last, here it is!

Just by way of explanation, here are some things you should know:

1. “Snoop” comes from a name I have used on various message boards for many years.  The “Snoop” part does not come from the rapper (Snoop Dogg), but from Snoopy, the Peanuts comic strip dog, because I’ve loved Snoopy for as long as I can remember.  It has gotten to the point where several of my online friends just call me “Snoop” instead of my real name, so I figured I should carry it over to this blog, because it’s fun.

2. As the blog title says, I do not claim to be an expert in theatre.  The closest thing to formal training I have is four years of drama class in high school, and one playwriting class in college.  I have a smattering of experience in various areas of amateur theatre, but mostly I’m just an avid fan.  I love to see plays, and I love to read, talk and write about plays and performers.

3.  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own, based on my years of being a major theatre geek.  The level of my geekdom has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s in full swing right now and I’m excited to finally get this blog going so I can have an outlet for my thoughts.

4. I will try to write reviews of all the shows I see, whether in St. Louis or elsewhere.  I will also be sharing my opinions on various theatre-related topics, and maybe a few other random things as well–but mostly having to do with theatre in some way.

5. My interests run the gamut from high-brow to low-brow to everything in between.  From Shakespeare and Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber to original shows thrown together by a bunch of college students (see A Very Potter Musical, below).  I do not like everything (Cats and High School Musical, this means you), but I like things of all levels, both well-known and obscure, and I always love discovering new shows and performers.

6. I will share links to videos of performances I like.  I have lots of favorite performers and shows, and I will post my favorite videos as the whim strikes me.  Like now (hints of blog entries to come!)

There.  I think that’s it.  So, this is my blog, for better or worse.  Whoever reads it, I hope you enjoy!

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