BWW Features/Reviews: Extraordinary Young Talent on Display in Act 2 @ Levine NEXT TO NORMAL

There's no shortage of theatrical educational activities in Washington, DC - particularly for teenagers. Among those are Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, and Theatre Lab. Certainly, all of them have something to offer to students of all talent and experience levels - a sense of community, the prospect of honing a craft, and building friendships with other kids who share the same passions. Yet, in the past week I've been introduced to a program that clearly offers all these things, and - dare I say it - something even a little more unique at the Levine School of Music

Levine, often considered one of our nation's leading community music schools and boasting a faculty of over 150 teaching artists, has long included musical theatre classes/lessons among its diverse educational offerings. The relatively new Act 2 @ Levine Pre-Professional Program for exceptionally talented high school students - one of three Act 2 @ Levine offerings, which also include First Act, a program for 5-8 graders, and a Mainstage program for high school and middle school students - continues this tradition and steps it up a notch.

The Pre-Professional Program, founded and spearheaded by the ambitious Kevin Kuchar, is - per Kuchar - a highly selective, audition-only, process-oriented theatre program that makes use of the existing infrastructure at Levine, including faculty, private lessons, music theory classes, and masters classes with the best in the business. Upon acceptance, the students join what founding director Kuchar calls a year-long 'cast' that participates in three productions - two performing roles and one apprenticeship track. This year's cast - which completed its last production this past weekend - took on three popular contemporary musicals, Rent, Bat Boy (presented at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company), and most recently, Next to Normal. In addition, students perform in a jury-style showcase and critique before the casting and outreach departments at one of DC's most prestigious and well-known theatres, Arena Stage. Arena Stage also played host to its production of Next to Normal.

Artistic Director Kuchar, who was gracious enough to answer some interview questions from BroadwayWorld DC, noted that it's "the integration of the curriculum in the classroom [at Levine] with the hands on instruction, coupled with its growing relationship with our partner organizations that make Act Two @ Levine truly an industry-shaping musical theatre department." That said, Kuchar stresses that the focus of the program is not simply to put on a show and/or prepare a student to become "the next Broadway star," but rather to develop a "total artist" in each student and allow them to acquire skills they can use whether they choose to purse theatre in college or not. While he says that certainly some students go on to pursue degrees in some top musical theatre programs at New York University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music among others, "many more" are also able to apply the skills they learned at Act 2 @ Levine in rigorous non-theatre oriented academic programs at Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and beyond.

If the program's recent May 2013 production of Next to Normal is any indication of what Kuchar is doing right, I must say that he is doing a lot right. Next to Normal, an award-winning rock musical from Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (Book and Lyrics), is one of those contemporary musical theatre juggernauts. While it offers a compelling story - an average American family coping with tragedy and trying to overcome all obstacles with love and determination - it's one of those shows that, if presented by artists not up to the challenge, may leave the audience scratching its head as to why it's so beloved. It is fierce belting meets angst-filled dramatic acting. To say that it's challenging for the actor and director, in particular, would be an understatement.

Thankfully, Kevin Kuchar (Direction, Production Design), Josephine Riggs (Musical Direction), Jennifer Suess (Vocal Coaching), a hard-working crew of Act 2 @ Levine students, a five-member professional band (two keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums/percussion), and of course a talented cast of seven teenagers (with four alternating major roles), rise to the occasion. They put on something that's pretty remarkable especially when one considers the short rehearsal and preparatory time (about 4 weeks, according to one cast member). Riggs, who admitted that "time was of the essence" in putting the show together, is certainly right when she describes the production with one word - "dynamic."

While the design elements were naturally far from perfect - the set in particular was a bit too complex for the space and required some very hardworking teenagers to slip in and out during the show to remove things to the point where it served as a distraction - and the band did not rock out like one might have hoped, there were a lot of things that worked in this production. Let's start first and foremost with the two ladies who took on the matriarch of the Goodman family, Diana - a woman struggling with loss and Bipolar Disorder, among other challenges, at the center of this story.

Kayla Dixon and Katie Gerard each bravely took on Diana for two of the four performances. I had the opportunity to catch both of them in action. Each brought something different to the role and have a future in musical theatre if that's the path they choose.

Dixon's well-trained, supple, and Broadway-ready voice served her well in taking on this mammoth singing role. Her intensity, particularly in "You Don't Know/I Am the One," was something to marvel at for someone so young. Her rendition of "I Miss the Mountains," likewise, was interesting for its jazzy-pop vibe. This song has been covered to death by an array of Broadway belters and I was glad to see she made choices that were her own - phrasing, riffs and all. Dixon also proved she's quite the burgeoning actress as well and captured Diana's darker and angrier moments in a particularly realistic way.

Gerard also has oodles of vocal talent and is perhaps one of the strongest and well-rounded teenage actresses I've seen in education-related theatrical productions in DC. Her versatility was more than on display in every moment of the show and defied her young age. Comedy? Drama? She could handle it all while achieving a remarkable balance between vocal control and palpable emotion. Standout numbers included "Didn't I See This Movie?" - she more than nailed the sardonic edge of the lyrics - and, interestingly enough, "The Break," a sad number that's usually overlooked where Diana comes to terms with her reality. Katie, who told BroadwayWorld that she knows this show very well having followed its development since its original New York production at Second Stage, resisted the temptation to 'play Alice Ripley - the original Tony Award-winner for the role - as Diana.' She used her knowledge of and love for the show in a way that was productive.

Also featured were Francesca Rowe and Emily Cochrane as perfectionist and nervy teenage daughter Natalie Goodman. Rowe, who took on the role in two of the four performances, is noteworthy for her realistic portrayal of a girl who lives in a world of chaos yet longs to get out of it and carve a path for herself. Her strong voice served her well in numbers such as "Superboy and the Invisible Girl." Cochrane's take on Natalie was slightly more reserved vocally, yet she also nailed the heartbreaking acting moments and proved she also has the chops for drama and comedy.

Two strong singer-actors, Eitan Mazia (Dan) and Noah Kieserman (Henry), proved worthy scene partners for Dixon/Gerard and Rowe/Cochrane as the long-suffering significant others who try to bring normalcy to Diana and Natalie's tumultuous worlds. Mazia had the difficult challenge of playing a middle aged man dealing with marital strife, unspeakable loss, and other personal obstacles - a challenge he admitted in his interview with BroadwayWorld. He proved he had the acting ability to take on someone that's likely in a very different place from himself with words and with his body language in the silent moments. His emotion-filled performance was matched by his strong vocals on "I've Been" among other numbers. Likewise, Kieserman was particularly endearing as Natalie's lovable pot-head boyfriend Henry and his strong pop voice was particularly suited to such numbers as "Perfect for You."

Rounding out the cast were Sean Watkinson (Gabe), Joey Ledonio (Doctor Madden) - who stated in an interview that he "learned the role in a little over a week" when another student dropped out of the production - and Cameron Mitchell (Doctor Fine). Watkinson's beautiful tenor voice and relatable charm were well suited to portray Gabe, a crucial person in Diana's life and journey. Gabe's soaring Act 1 solo "I'm Alive" is usually a showstopper in most productions of Next to Normal and this case was no exception. Ledonio and Mitchell also displayed fine comedic and dramatic acting skills as the very different men who treat Diana for her mental illness.

Kuchar, in his interview with BroadwayWorld DC, stressed that his love for theatre is not the only thing that prompted him to join the Levine team and carve out this intensive yet nurturing musical theatre program. Says Kuchar, "I love what storytelling can do. Storytelling quite literally has the power to teach, to inspire, to change, to motivate, to cultivate, to challenge - there really isn't anything story telling can't do." Kuchar and his students certainly told a story in Next to Normal and a challenging one at that.

As each of the cast members answered an interview question about how they prepared for their roles and how they viewed their characters, it was clear that they too have internalized the importance and power of storytelling and the need to understand who people are and what makes them tick. Each keyed in important facets of their characters and in some cases, revealed they observed others in similar situations to come up with the best way to approach their characters. Kayla keyed in on Diana's "strength and willingness to fight," and Katie noted Diana's "sexiness" and "sharpness" and the fact that she's "complex" and "strong and weak all at once." Francesca and Emily also keyed in on Natalie's "strength" and determination. Eitan focused on Dan's "selfless and supportive" nature. Sean, likewise, honed in on the importance of Gabe's link to Diana for his own journey and his desire to "stay alive." Noah, too, focused on Henry's "determination to expose Natalie to a better world." Joey and Cameron, both playing psychiatrists, understood how the two doctors were different from one another, which influenced how they played the roles (with Madden being, as Joey said, more "compassionate."

As a result, the production was real, raw, and unflinching. Kuchar says he chooses shows that will inspire kids and cause them to think. This show certainly does that and can also impact the audience. Kudos to this wonderful program.

For more information on Act 2 @ Levine, visit its website:

Photo: Cast of Next to Normal; by Carmelita Watkinson.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry