BWW Reviews: Arresting, Emotionally Charged NEXT TO NORMAL at Classical Theatre Company
From the opening piano riff, a driving and intense, yet somehow melodic, progression, the Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of Next to Normal is arresting, poignant, and emotionally charged. The material is, of course, remarkable in its own right. Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer Prize winning book is smart, a delicate balance of drama and sarcastic humor that keeps the audience members on their toes. His lyrics, combined with Tom Kitt's driving rock music, keep the story moving forward effortlessly. ICTC's production capitalizes on the strengths of the material and their stellar cast to create an extremely effective re-imagination of the production. ICTC has a theatre in the round, but for this production has built a raked stage in one corner of the stage and out into the audience, so the performers are effectively playing on a thrust stage.
Fortunato Pezzimenti's directorial vision is clear, using light very effectively to convey the unrest inside the head of Diana, the manic bipolar mother and protagonist of the show. Doug Weyand's choreographic hand is visible more prominently in numbers such as "I Dreamed a Dance," in which Diana and her son Gabe have a sort of dream ballet. Weyand's touch is evident, however, in the way that characters in the musical numbers track the stage full of intention. The entire technical staff of the production is to be congratulated; the show, in its intimacy, relies heavily on lights, sound, and effects, all of which are tackled without difficulty in ICTC's production. Also to be commended is the band, led by music director/pianist Jason Bravo. Bravo's fierce attention to the detail of the score works well in the intimate performance space.
No show is effective without suitable performances from its cast, and this elegant production's capstone is its performers. Not only does each performer handle their own songs effectively, but also the manic background vocals written into Kitt's score. Worth mentioning, also, is the strong family connection between the onstage family of Diana, Dan, Natalie, and Gabe. This is by far the best and most noticeable element of this particular production.
Jenn Stafford, as Diana, is musically spectacular. She finds every note with specificity, soaring through difficult numbers like "I Miss the Mountains" and "You Don't Know" with ease. In her portrayal of a Diana's bipolar nature, Stafford understands and indicates well the dilemma of her delusions. Her pain and anguish is indicated best when the audience can look into her eyes, which is sometimes a hindrance. Her delivery of the much more demanding second act is the true highlight of her performance; she is now comfortable in who and what Diana is and her rendition of "So Anyway" is a moment in which the audience is really engaged in her performance.
As her supportive, if not somewhat overbearing husband, Jason Watson shines especially bright. He has an exorbitant amount of experience with the role of Dan, having understudied the role on the 1st national tour (performing the role opposite Alice Ripley). As the only non-local performer, Watson effortlessly slides into the dynamic onstage, and is the performer with the most clear development throughout the show. Particularly touching to Watson's performance is his final scene with his daughter, who shares his sense of humor, but obviously also loves her father very much. Watson has no trouble with the score, and his musical prowess is rich with emotion.
In her extremely challenging role as the couples' daughter, the young Renee Landrigan is near perfect. The pressures of her life as a prodigy and living in a family where her mother is delusional, and in effect crazy, show in her transition into a sordid lifestyle. Landrigan's performance is full of discoveries, and we watch her path into degradation just as we watch her fall for the geeky but charming Henry. The score is no challenge for Landrigan, either. When she's sweet, she's sweet, but there's a lot of pent up fury in that little body. Equally dynamic is her boyfriend Henry, portrayed at ICTC by Jacob Albarella. Albarella is serviceably dorky, but also extremely intelligent and the right amount of adorable to "win the girl." When he sees Natalie "take it too far" with her partying and addicted behavior, he tries his best to pull her back, and be the support she needs while coping with her mother's prolonged illness.
Rounding out the family unit is Patrick Cameron as Gabe. It is impossible to discuss Gabe without spoiling a little of the show, so if you've never listened to it or seen it, kindly skip the following paragraph.
Cameron rightfully connects with Stafford in all of his appearances on stage. He is a noticeable gravitational pull for Stafford from her husband, being one of her delusions that is as real to her as he is to the audience. The character of Gabe is hugely nuanced, but one can make the mistake of playing him as a ghost too soon. Cameron does not make this mistake, rather settling rather disturbingly into the family unit onstage. He takes control of the situation when singing, and his rendition of "I'm Alive" is uniquely his own. The most impressive part of his performance, soliciting plenty of sniffles from the audience (and yours truly), is the "I'm Alive" reprise in which he finally confronts his father, and his father says his name for the first time in the show. This is one of the most challenging but rich moments for Gabe, and Cameron is flawless.
Finally, the cast would not be complete without the performance of David Autovino as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine. The two contrasting doctors serve as Diana's connection with "reality," although we see that her delusions extend into her sessions. As is the case with most of the characters, Autovino's defining moment occurs at the end of the play, when he provides the grieving Dan with a number for a therapist to discuss his own issues and defense mechanisms.
In short, the Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of the complicated and dense Next to Normal is not only effective, but well directed and performed. The entire production is charged with energy apparent from the very start, and never loses energy through the end. A dark and twisted story laced with humor, Next to Normal is a story for the ages, and inspires every audience member in a different way. It runs at the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street, Buffalo, NY, 14203 through 10/7. Tickets are available by calling the Box Office at (716) 853-ICTC or at www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.