Saturday, January 21, 2012

Actors' Playhouse: Next To Normal (4 reviews)

Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater opened its production of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal on January 20, 2012.
One family is about to face the music. Next to Normal is an emotional powerhouse of a musical about a family trying to take care of themselves and each other. It is about one woman's struggle with manic depression and the toll it takes on her family. Next to Normal's surging score is intense, emotional and ultimately hopeful of how the family comes to terms with their past and faces their future. A truly remarkable, moving and powerful new musical.
David Arisco directed a cast that included Jodi Langel, Mark Sanders, Eddy Roiseco, Sarah Amengual, Nick Duckart, and Ben Liebert.

Roger Martin reviewed for Miami Artzine:
Every piece of music in next to normal is listenable...and enjoyable. And that's an awesome feat in modern musicals. And every line of dialogue rings true, because its written that way and because almost every line is sung beautifully by the terrific cast at Actors' Playhouse.
Jodie Langel, Mark Sanders, Nick Duckart, Sarah Amengual, Ben Liebert and Eddy Rioseco are simply bloody marvellous. As each enters you think ah, good, more pleasure. Such great theatre.

Eric Alsford leads musicians Martha Spangler, Roy Fantel, Sandy Poltarack. Elena Alamilla, Bogdan Chrusczc and Jill Sheer through an evening of gorgeous listening. And many, many thanks to sound designer Alexander Herrin who kept the levels and mix exactly right. Every word, every note, perfectly clear.
John Lariviere reviewed for Talkin' Broadway:
Jodie Langel's portrayal of Diana is an acting triumph of beauty and pain... Sarah Amengual turns in a strong performance as her attention-starved teenage daughter Natalie...
...the level of musicianship displayed by every member of the cast is worthy of praise. They demonstrate a real understanding of sharing their musical space. As vocal melodies and themes overlap and weave together, they are mindful of dynamic shaping, so that the most important line is always the one that is heard. Such contentious ensemble singing is rare, and both the ensemble and music director Eric Alsford deserve credit for performing a difficult score so well.
Next To Normal is not standard musical theatre fare. The dark and disturbing nature of the storyline rules this show out as an appropriate choice for children, teens or even a date... As oppressive as this may be, it succeeds powerfully in wringing empathy from the audience, effectively creating a memorable if disturbing theatrical experience.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Easily among the finest shows the company has presented in its long history, the musical by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist-playwright Brian Yorkey offers an intense examination of a woman’s struggle with bipolar disorder and the familial toll that fight takes. This is musical theater as serious as it is glorious, an insightful and moving drama that happens to be exquisitely sung.
Kitt’s music, so beautifully performed by the onstage orchestra led by musical director Eric Alsford at the baby grand, taps into rock idioms on songs like Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling, the angry Superboy and the Invisible Girl and the defiant I’m Alive. But the score also boasts the tender waltz I Dreamed a Dance, as well as ballads and contemporary theater songs that paint a harrowing portrait of a family in crisis.
Director David Arisco has assembled a cast and production team that serves this challenging, illuminating show in every way. The “family” members, plus Ben Liebert as Natalie’s would-be boyfriend Henry and Nick Duckart as two of the many doctors who try to hit on just the right treatment for Diana, have Broadway-quality voices that blend exquisitely. Alexander Herrin’s sound design is a triumph of clarity, blend and moment-to-moment levels that help make a complex show completely comprehensible.

The performances, particularly Langel’s brilliant portrayal of the passionate, suffering Diana, are on par with the best work you can find at the country’s top regional theaters, in exceptional touring companies or in first-rate New York shows. This production really is that good, that special.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Artistic Director David Arisco long ago proved his expertise at staging mainstream crowd-pleasers and there’s nothing wrong with a purely entertaining evening.

But next to normal and a handful of atypically adventurous Actors Playhouse productions show that Arisco can mount sublime theater when he is inspired by challenging material and is teamed with equally skilled colleagues.
...every aspect – the magnificent acting, the adroit direction, the music, the lyrics, the band, the lights, the sound – all seem transformed into the unified yearning of an outstretched arm reaching for salvation.
Musical director Eric Alsford has longed to do this show since seeing it, twice, on Broadway, and he makes the most of this opportunity. The score often involves two or even all six actors singing differing melody lines or harmonies or vocal accompaniments. Alsford smoothly melds them like streams feeding into a single waterfall, yet with the separate streams still identifiable.
Every single (cast member) is superb and clearly in love with the work – fine strong singers who lace their voices with passion and their acting with a recognizable humanity.
First among equals is Langel... This is a killer role both in its emotional demands and its vocal requirements, but she is up to it.
Sanders is perfect as the stolid if solid spouse... His warm baritone, often pushed into the falsetto stratosphere to express anxiety, gives the entire show a grounding. His penultimate number “I Am The One,” a duet with Gabe, is shattering.
Amengual has a preternatural talent for such a young woman. She has an expressive angelic voice living alongside an actor’s talent... She is fine throughout, but the intelligence, fury and angst she invests in “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is a standout moment.
Rioseco is equally impressive as a joyfully anarchic tempter and destabilizer...  His rendition of the blazing “I’m Alive” is, no pun intended, electrifying.
The creative team members are all Actors’ veterans, but this is some of their best work. Patrick Tennent’s lighting is a marvel of the art... Ellis Tillman’s costumes, seeming simple, perfectly express character. Gene Seyffer’s jungle gym setting of the bones of a house, made up of pipes and platforms, is as if an X-ray has exposed what goes on in the suburban house next door.
Special kudos are due to sound designer Alexander Herrin. After the disastrous sound at last fall’s Hairspray, the sound here is as crisp, clean and comprehensible as the aging hall, the cacophonous score and the singers’ sometimes imperfect diction allowed.
A last kudo to producers Barbara and Larry Stein for taking a huge risk with such a powerful and thought-provoking work.
Next to Normal plays at Actors' Playhouse through February 12, 2012.

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