Thursday, May 7, 2015

Pit and Balcony's "Next to Normal" a dramatic and vocal standout

The set of "Next to Normal"

Matt Schramm as the father

Review and photos by Janet I. Martineau

Why, you might ask, would I want to go see a musical about mental illness?

Because in the case of "Next to Normal," opening Friday night at Saginaw's Pit and Balcony Community Theatre, it is SUPERB on all accounts. And because, with statistics saying that one in four Americans has some sort of mental issue, there might be something helpful or understanding to learn.

Other plusses  – it won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony awards, its six actors portray compelling people you care about every step of the way, and there are an amazing 46 songs that propel the action (making it more opera than musical theater, but opera with a rock bent).

Director Laura Brigham landed herself a dream ensemble cast, if Wednesday night's dress rehearsal was any indication. And they in turn landed a dream director in terms of the overall look and movement of the show.

In the storyline we spend time with a middle-class family whose parents have been married for 16 years. Meagan Eager is cast as the mother, who is suffering from bipolar and delusional episodes. Matt Schramm is her devoted husband. Danessa Hellus and William Lockhart are the son and daughter, with teen-age issues of their own heightened by their mother's never-ending illness.

Henry Wakie is the daughter's sweetheart of a boyfriend. And Randy Robinson is cast as two of the mother's revolving-door mental health doctors – who supply her with more pills than seem logical, hypnosis sessions, shock treatment therapy that robs the memory, and just about anything else they can think of. 

None of which work.

As noted all six are incredibly solid, in particular in the vocal department because the lyrics and music of this work are totally tricky. A nightmare. Much of it sung opera style – glorious duets, trios, quartets, even sextets; voices always layering and deliciously treating the ears. Not only do these six actors have beautiful singing voices but they also deliver these songs emotionally and enunciate clearly.

Added onto that they have to have the dramatic chops to showcase the characters as characters not caricatures. In particular the two parents who have been coping with these mental health issues from their marriage day, more or less. Again a resounding success -- and with bits of humor along the way, resignation because they've all seen it before, and the message of the strength of family no matter its problems.

There are so many dramatic highlights it is impossible to list them all. But two of them are the family recalling the trips they took and the mother and daughter coming to terms with each other.

Brigham keeps the show hustling with nary a pause for set or scene change through the lack of lighting on the section being changed while the actors continue on another well lit part of the stage. Sometimes it's a little noisy but most of the time unnoticeable.

The scenic design created by a trio of people is hard to describe but it is rather cold, fragmented, multilevel – just like the story of this family.

And other absolute plus is the six-member orchestra headed by Loren Kranz, navigating that difficult score, with soaring piano segments by Sara Taylor, kept beautifully balanced by sound designer Blake Mazur so it never overpowers the singers.

A word of warning. That famous four-letter word is used frequently. But frankly in context. And the themes are definitely adult.

"Next to Normal" caps off a tremendous year at Pit, with five top-notch shows. it is a chancy show to do, very very chancy as it tackles the mental health elephant in the room that most people try to ignore.

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