Baum and Chambers Lead BRT's NEXT TO NORMAL to Artistic Heights, Both Expected and Unexpected

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Megan Murphy Chambers' searing, shattering portrayal of Diana Goodman in Boiler Room Theatre's stellar production of next to normal, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical now onstage through June 16, may well prove to be the season's most memorable performance by an actress in a musical, but director Jamey Green has surrounded her with an exceptional cast of actors who match her blow-for-blow with their own stunning performances.

In fact, in the retrospect afforded me by twelve hours, I have to admit that the production's most revelatory performance is delivered by Mike Baum, as the long-suffering and beleaguered Dan Goodman, Diana's stalwart and steadfast husband. That doesn't mean Chambers' performance is anything less than the spectacular onstage turn that it is-but, truth be told, it was expected from her. When word of her casting became publicly known, it is safe to say that 99% of the theater-going public (and actors themselves) agreed that Chambers' casting was indeed perfect. And she delivers exactly what we all hoped for, showing off the versatility, the confidence and the presence that has long identified her as one of the very best to be found onstage.

Baum, of course, has a resume that is just as impressive as Chambers'-in the past year alone he's displayed his all-encompassing range while playing such disparate characters as Brad in The Rocky Horror Show, Bobby in Company and three different roles in Pacific Overtures-but his portrayal of Dan is breathtakingly heartfelt, deeply moving and allows him to show everything that he is capable of bringing to the most challenging of roles. Clearly, Baum's is the eye-opening performance of this production, which marks the musical's Middle Tennessee premiere.

Riveted to their seats, audience members remain hushed and almost reverent throughout the two-plus hours of the show which commands their rapt attention and which demands their complete involvement just as certainly as Green demands it of his cast, musicians and creative team.

Green's casting of Chambers and Baum-along with the other four actors who people the complex and provocative musical-elevates next to normal from "just another show" at BRT (which was named as First Night's Outstanding Theater Company of 2011) to such artistic heights that it leaves audiences spent, gasping for breath while stifling sobs (both from the dramatic nature of the plot, but also from the pride and amazement one feels at witnessing such a joyful-yes, joyful-theatrical expression), yet eager to watch it all over again. And again.

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next to normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is described as "a rock musical," and some of the music, indeed, is heavily rock-influenced, but don't think for even a second that this work of art can't be placed firmly among the list of shows that we usually think of when we think of musical theater. The songs do what is expected in musicals-propelling the story forward, elaborating on the plot developments and furthering the aims of the writers in creating something larger than life-but they transcend any stagebound convention, becoming instead something new and unique in the constantly evolving and organic process known as theater.

Green does double-duty as the production's musical director and there is no one more accomplished and disciplined as he to bring the music to life. With a musical ensemble that includes Rick Malkin on percussion, Doug Bright on bass, Dale Herr on guitars, Diedra Emerson on cello and Charis Mackrell on violin, with Green conducting and on keyboards, Kitt's score is performed with passion and alacrity, lending expert support to the efforts of the six-person cast.

In fact, next to normal-which is almost completely sung-through-might be more akin to opera than musical comedy, what with its serious overtones and its treatment of subjects heretofore considered off-limits to people working in this particular genre. The play's opening sequence, "Just Another Day" starts out in a high-spirited, almost comical manner, but it's not long before you sense that all is not right in the Goodman home: The scene that began with Diana waiting up for the late arrival of her 17-year-old son from a night presumably on the town, and the hustle and bustle of a middle-class suburban family getting ready for a typically busy day, ends with Diana on the floor, manically assembling sandwiches and losing touch with her fast-fading semblance of reality.

It is during that scene we first see Chambers' resolute understanding of her role's demands taking shape; she refuses to play Diana with any sense of stereotype or some misguided trope. Instead, she begins to weave the tale of Diana and the people who surround her as something new, and perhaps unrecognizable, from what we've seen in a musical before. It's alarming and exhilarating at the same time and you cannot look away for even the briefest moment (although, hopefully, you won't have a man sitting behind you, as I did, constantly kicking the back of your seat with such vigor that I'm not convinced he wasn't doing it on purpose, but I digress…)

As Diana's story unfolds, we learn much about the family dynamics that rule the Goodman household and have wreaked havoc on the family's domesticity for more than 16 years. We learn about this through a series of compelling musical numbers that give each cast member his or her own voice, songs that demonstrate the composer and lyricist's ability to create memorable work that challenges preconceived notions and which artfully reveal the realities that are shielded by Diana's total disconnect from the life that is happening around her.

As it delves into the mysteries and travails, the highs and the lows, the manic episodes and the life-draining depressive events of Diana's chronic mental illness, next to normal stirs the heart, awakens the soul and-for me at least, more than twelve hours after the curtain was rung down-elicits a far greater emotional response than I ever expected: the tears I fought back while watching the show onstage in the intimate confines of the Boiler Room Theatre, flow freely in the privacy of my office. And I offer that as testament to the power of the material and the unparalleled abilities of the actors.

Yorkey's book is serious, without being arch and high-minded (which makes it far more accessible), and the heaviness of the drama is leavened with generous helpings of sardonic humor, making it all the more palatable.

next to normal is an eloquent expression of an almost-impossible-to-talk-about subject and Kitt and Yorkey treat their characters with a kindness and deference, without becoming maudlin or self-serving in the process. What you see onstage shows off an economy of creativity and genuineness of spirit that never succumbs to the expected, instead delivering something fresh and contemporary at every turn. To their credit-and to the audience's obvious delight-the show's ending is hopeful and uplifting, almost joyful in its dramatic arc. Yet that change in tone is not jarring at all; rather, it seems to flow naturally from the previous scenes.

The impeccable portrayals of Diana and Dan which are delivered with such zeal by Chambers and Baum (their skills are so awesomely spotlighted that you almost feel drunk in the wake of their work in next to normal) are made all the more impressive by the support given them by the other four actors in director Green's ensemble.

Belmont University musical theatre major Kevin Mead brings a youthful demeanor to the role of Gabe, Diana and Dan's son, playing him at times with a mischievous glee and at others with a barely contained rage, all while showing off his beautiful voice to near-perfection. His interactions with Chambers are heartrending at best, playful at worst, and Mead makes a startling Nashville stage debut with this role. His "I'm Alive!" is, alone, worth the price of admission (and it was his last scene, with Baum, that causes me to puddle up, even when remembering its indelible impact).

As Natalie (Diana and Dan's overachieving, oft-neglected daughter) Paige Brouillette, who has dazzled previously as a member of Sondra Morton's Act Too Players troupe, shows a strength and maturity in her performance, maintaining a fierce control of her onstage personality while displaying an estimable range and considerable stage presence. She is paired winningly with Jordan Ravellette, the talented young actor who plays Natalie's boyfriend Henry. Brouillette and Ravellette have a palpable onstage chemistry that renders each of their scenes all the more watchable. Ravellette's wide smile and open heart make his Henry the perfect foil to Brouillette's more taciturn and reflective Natalie.

Ben Van Diepen rounds out the ensemble, playing two of Diana's therapists. With complete and total focus, Van Diepen creates two very different and very distinct characters (you will note that one doctor is left-handed, the other right-handed) and the actor makes other, very subtle choices which underscore the differences of the two medicine men. His scenes with Chambers are ideally rendered and Van Diepen lends his gorgeous voice to the musical proceedings.

next to normal is performed against the backdrop of Anthony Popolo's beautifully rendered set, which features numerous staircases leading to nowhere that underscore Diana's fragility. The colors of the set bathe the story with a lavender haze that adds to its impact. Katie Gant's atmospheric and evocative lighting plays a vital role in moving the play's action along and directing audience attention to where it needs to be during particularly dramatic moments. The contributions of Popolo and Gant , along with those of costume designer Katie Delaney  and choreographer Lauri Gregoire, further underscore the collaborative nature of theater and the artistic collective that continues to push Boiler Room Theatre ever higher.

next to normal. Music by Tom Kitt. Lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey. Directed and music directed by Jamey Green. Choregoraphy by Lauri Gregoire. Presented by Boiler Room Theatre, at the Factory in Franklin. Through June 16.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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