Monday, November 5, 2012

She&Her "Next to Normal" review by BobEvans

Nothing Normal Rating: 5

Next To Normal
by She&Her Productions

She&Her Productions mounted a monumental task to present the musically challenging "Next To Normal" for Kansas City audiences on a small stage and a small venue. At first, planned to be the musical's local debut, the Kauffman Center stole the thunder last year when a traveling version of the show made its KC debut there last spring.

The story looks at the life of a dysfunctional family (imagine that in a modern theatrical production) struggling to survive with lives hopelessly flawed from past tragedies. Remember "The Three Faces of Eve"? How about Sybil? Well, schizophrenia and multiple personality disorders intrigued readers and viewers, but that was first in the 1950s and then the 1970s. Now, the newest mental buzz is bi-polar disorder. Mostly treated with mind and mood-altering drugs, doctors never address the causes of the malady but only treat the symptoms, hopefully, to stop the onslaught of the progressive illness. Layered drugs never cure the problem, but only mask the true emotional state of the sufferer.

Diana Goodman, the lead character in "Next To Normal", suffers from bipolar disorder and the cause and effect on her family leads the storyline of the show. A small cast of family members, doctor, and a boyfriend comprise the cast of the musical drama performed on a well constructed set designed similarly to many "Rent" sets. The difference here is that the orchestra is mostly concealed rather than viewed, probably to not distract from the actors. And the vocal demands of "Next To Normal" far surpass the vocals needed for "Rent".

And, speaking of actors, director Tiffany Garrison Schweigert assembled a cast with acting and vocal skills to masterfully produce the show. "Amazing and talented," she said prior to the show when asked what to expect of the vocal performances. A difficult score requires vocal talent more over than acting talent for this show.

The lead performer, Kristin Leathers, plays Diana, the woman struggling with reality and doing what she can to keep her family in tact while bipolar issues magnify as the years progress. Not until the second act does her story fully unfold to inform of the causes of the illness. Give lots of credit to Leathers' singing and acting. She possesses a beautiful voice and understands the character. Her strength in vocal and acting performance fit well in the play. When singing, she delivers solid vocals. When acting, she performs with passion and understanding of the role. The only small weakness is when the two collide and the singing and acting have to occur in the same frame, and dialogue and singing are mixed. This is usually in tandem with other performers, so it's a really tricky part to portray and make the shifts from speech to vocals and back and forth. Still a very vibrant, poignant performance with a super difficult role.

For the male lead, Robert Hingula, as Dan, Diana's husband, possesses the strongest of the male vocals. His crisp, clear singing amazes audiences, and his touching portrayal of the supportive care-giver keeps the audience engaged with him each time he enters the stage. Hingula delivers an exceptional performance with no weakness throughout the acts. Audience members understand his concern, torment, and passion in dealing with an ill wife and a teenage daughter.

Great vocals also come from Graham Fairleigh who portrays two psychiatrists in the production. While his roles are small, they develop the storyline and propel it forward while adding to the inner conflicts of the husband who needs to make tough decisions to foster his wife's treatments and possible cures. When Fairleigh opens up with his vocal performances, every eye focuses on him and only him.

Standing firm alongside his vocal and acting talents, Daniel Beeman plays the son. Not a lot can be said of his character or station in the play without ruining the story for those that do not know "Next To Normal". Suffice it to say Beeman's character connects the characters and the inner emotional conflicts and outward physical interactions. All relationships pivot on his character and the perception of that character. As far as vocally, Beeman's voice commands attention in his solos and blends extremely well in some trio with Hingula and Fairleigh. Wow! Can this young thespian sing and act. Watch him work his way through the piece as he adds layers to his character as it changes.

Moving on, the daughter, Natalie, performed by Deanna Mazdra, moves adeptly through the piece as the troubled teenager who struggles to understand her place in the family and her relationship with both parents. Obviously, the mother-daughter conflict serves as the main problem, but she also deals with rejection, low self-confidence, typical teenage image problems, acceptance, trust, and longing for peace. Only a talented actress with good direction faithfully delivers on all tasks. Expect to see that and more in Mazdra's performance. And, don't stop with the acting; her singing skills match those of everyone else in the cast. She equals all other actors and does not miss a note or pitch in the entirety of the show.

Finally, Matthew King, as Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, shows both his acting and vocal range in a much smaller part than the others. His stage time really only involves scenes with Natalie and the development of her story. Yes, he does have one or two scenes with other cast members, but his character's role creates the development of Natalie's self-worth and delivers her from the abyss of mental illness that pulls her toward a similar fate as her mother's plight. King's soft spoken character provides support and strength to Natalie's character. Do not mistake King's soft delivery for weakness or soft vocals. He lets loose with some really great solo, duet, trio, and ensemble harmonies. The only weakness was sound on his dialogue. A tweak of the technical crew fixes that. Yes, King has a quiet voice, but the sound crew can amplify his dialog and adjust his microphone accordingly.

Give credit to Schweigert for directing this difficult piece that relies more on vocal performance than dialogue. She needed a cast that could develop the characters yet still provide a schooled vocal performance. Obviously, she chose wisely and correctly to accomplish her undertaking. She directed her players to perform to the demands of the piece and work as an ensemble with no character over-stepping the script.

What the audience sees and reacts to also depends on the crews that produce the actions. Sound, make-up, set, props, orchestra, lights, projection, and more provide the totality of the show. A weakness in any of those technical areas can destroy a performance. "Next To Normal" contains no weaknesses in these areas. The show opened Friday, Nov. 2, and will grow with future performances.

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