BWW Reviews: Music Box Musicals' NEXT TO NORMAL Stands Next to Greatness
The recent passing of great comedic actor Robin Williams clearly conveys the relevance and value of a play like NEXT TO NORMAL. His untimely death highlights the insidiousness of mental disorders and the impotence of the sufferer, his loved ones and the mental health establishment in the face of mental illness.
Sure, it's a little low brow for me to use the death of a national treasure to promote a play, but, in my defense, I was originally going to use my mother in the introduction, and I am much closer to her than I was to Robin Williams.
NEXT TO NORMAL chronicles one family's struggles with its demons and the specter of Bipolar disorder. It gives some comic relief and a rock music soundtrack to the untenable situation that people with a mental illness and their loved ones find themselves in. And, thanks to Director Luke Wrobel, the Music Box Musicals production keeps true to the spirit of the play. Miraculously, it is a tug on your heart strings show centered on the effects of mental illness that doesn't leave you depressed. That alone is enough reason to see the production.
But it isn't the only reason. Strong performances by Kristina Sullivan (Diana), Corey Hartzog (Gabe), and Danielle "Dani" Pike (Natalie) add three more. And Brad Scarborough (Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine) is a fun lime chaser to the talented trio's tequila. Now, we're up to six reasons.
I want stronger characterization from Eric Domuret (Dan) and stronger character development from Marco Camacho (Henry).
Alisa Pederson's (Violin/Keyboard) violin is achingly beautiful. But Orchestra Director Jesse Lozano allows her playing to overshadow the actors a few times but this is a small and forgivable oversight.
I understand that Set Designer Mark X. Laskowski is limited to purple but varying textures and hues of purple would add some visual interest to the set.
The performance space - I have mixed feelings about the Music Box Musicals' performance space. It has its advantages and disadvantages. And I think the company, now in its second season, has not quite figured out how to maximize its potential. For example, the aforementioned set design. In a small space, these sort of details are very noticeable. But, I will say, Kristina Sullivan's first act solo "I Miss The Mountains" is so involving and touching because the space encourages intimacy.
Here, I also credit Adam Richardson's lighting design for the wonderful moment. I also give him credit for the set design. I believe different lighting choices would have helped Mark X. Laskowski create richer staging.
Deep breath - let's talk about act one.
Sitting in the audience, it felt as if the actors were merely hitting the notes when they sang (and acted). Their performances did not suggest an intimate acquaintance with the material.
And, while Musical Director and Choreographer Michael J. Ross has clearly coached some very fine performances, in act one Kristina Sullivan is missing variety in her vocal interpretation. Again, she does not connect to the material and relies too much on the beauty of her voice and easy on the ears vocal flourishes. At times, she appears to be doing an impersonation of her own vocal stylings. Also, Danielle "Dani" Pike's performance would be even better if she were coached to stay in a range where she has more vocal control.
By the end of the act, Corey Hartzog's seductive and vocally impressive performances in "I'm Alive" and "There's A World" brought me back to the story unfolding before me and away from my notebook. His performance is beguiling and seductive.
The sound was a major issue the night I attended. The ensemble pieces were a mess. The live music overpowered the actors. But the sound issues the plagued the production are remedied. I know this because they were remedied by the second act.
I don't know what the coach said in the locker room but after the intermission everything changed.
I can't even pick a favorite song for the second act. By then I was so engrossed in the play there was no use in trying to take notes. There are still blips here and there. Sometimes Marco Camacho (Henry) is off-key and Danielle "Dani" Pike (Natalie) is young and still developing her technique, but the cast is strong. Danielle "Dani" Pike adds quite a bit to the production. She really shines in "Light."
Because the actor's performances and the sound improved so much by the second act, I'll be generous and assume any issues I had with the first act are resolved. With the sound issues taken care of, the production managed to melt my cold, cold heart. I even considered upgrading my applause from my usual polite opera clap, which is a close as you're getting to a standing ovation from me.
For tickets or more information, call 713-522-7722 or visit www.musicboxmusicals.com.