Next to Normal is blockbuster opener for OCT in Eugene through February 16
Next to Normal is the tale of the restless ghost of the buried child (the protagonist) in modern musical idioms, a modern domestic musical, a "tragedy of the common man" (woman), to use Arthur Miller's terminology - a la Death of a Salesman - an allusion reinforced by the Jo-Mielziner-evoking skeleton set by Jeffrey Cook, framed window elements, a medicine cabinet, a black shadow cutout of a piano keyboard and a black painted chair on the stage left upper deck (representing the silhouettes of the elements of a practice room on a college campus, where the troubled daughter connects with the boy that loves her), on the otherwise open and bare second level, backed by a strip-lit cyc for flat glowing backgrounds in typical cyc-flood colors.
The band is tucked away under the stage right (audience left) platform, with the drummer behind a baffle. keyboards (Nathan Alef), guitar (sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric - Nick Hamel), electric bass (Corey Adkins), cello (Ian S. Palmer), and drummer/percussionist (Derick Thomas) form the five-piece orchestra, allowing an interesting palette of sonic textures to use as accompaniment and mood ambiences. An open area under the stage left platform was probably designed to be crossable, but the low clearance of the truss holding up the platform may have rendered that problematic. Up center right, there is a dining table below black steel shelving representing, well, shelves, holding dishes and various other props. Down center left, an easy chair and a floor lamp represent the living room. Exits through the audience (at DSL and DSR corners of the thrust), frequently called "voms" - we can go into why later - are employed as exits and entrances, as are UR and UL corners of the floor level, exits off right and off left above, and a stair with landing allowing access between floor and second level at center stage. The grid treatment on the floor ( - i had to look twice to see whether it was not blue painter's masking tape - ) suggested a web, a network of influences, a neurology perhaps where jangling any nerve has a consequence in all the other nerves, a "pinball or domino effect."
The cast is disciplined, talented, committed, singing with emotional authenticity and conviction, everyone handling well both solo work ("arias"), and ensemble work, with its synchronization, harmonization, and blending demands, well-crafted at the hands of musical director Nathan Alef. There just isn't time for much "straight acting" as the opera pace demands emoting and connecting moments to be expressed through the music. Director Craig Willis is to be commended on keeping the pace up, no awkward dead zones, enough engaging-ness in the presentation to stay interesting for two and a half hours (with a ten-minute intermission).
Susannah Mars as "Diana" reprises the role she created for Artists Rep with intensity, focus, and a smoldering fire of desperation, searching for lost direction. Evan Marshall's "Gabe" delivers a vocal performance notable for it's high range, as if the part were written for a "17 year old boy" with the voice of a young child, and does so with a clear tone. (It took me half way through the first act to "get it" that Gabe was a ghost, but not for lack of clues; he's in the others' faces, but they don't respond to him. I don't suppose putting him in Blithe Spirit Grey make-up and costuming would really be helpful.) Brian Hambach as husband/father "Dan" brings a vocal talent and discipline to the role that exhibits understanding and experience in the musical theater genre. Evynne Hollens as "Natalie" is an innocent spirit that is troubled, conflicted, falls into pills and an unhealthy night life, finally "redeemed" by a boyfriend who won't abandon her in spite of her attempts to send him away. The long-suffering loyal boyfriend "Henry" is Tyler Ankenman, convincingly empathetic and concerned in the role. Gene Chin plays both doctors ("Fine" and "Madden"), so you have to pay attention to the dialogue to realize Diana has "changed doctors," because they both look the same. Everyone in the cast worked the ensemble bits as a tight team, and held their own in their solo and exposed bits. It was a continuous pleasure to absorb the vocal performances.
The audio reinforcement began a bit awkward early in the night's performance, sometimes muffled, sometimes a bit overbearing, but the sound became clearer and better balanced as the show unfolded - familiarity with the show will probably correct these moments with practice; live sound can be a tricky tightrope. Michael Peterson's lighting is daring in the choice of strong, saturated, "unnatural" colors for ambient lighting, with more conventional area lighting for direct focus to the dramatic moment. The followspot sometimes (unfortunately) spilled into the audience, which can be blinding, discomfiting, and annoying, and faces in dramatic scenes and musical confrontations were often starkly lit on one side and in deep shadow on the other, intended as a "noir" effect, perhaps, but frustrating in that one wants to be able to see the singer's face. The lighting on the upper level was sometimes problematic, actors almost in their specials, moments that looked like "any light at all will do" solutions. I saw the array of color scrollers in the grid, but I never heard them; this is all to the good. The design team also includes Ryan Rusby as sound designer (live reinforcement in the house), and Erin Schindler providing costuming in contemporary style, that is nuanced in supporting time, place, and mood from scene to scene. Costuming can be a thankless task, like lighting, that gets noticed when it's glaringly wrong, but lost in the gestalt when it's right.
Like Hair or Urinetown, or any of the SF Mime Troupe's or dell'Arte's excellent pieces, this piece feels developed to some extent collectively, but the music (composed by Tom Kitt, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) owns the show; it can legitimately lay claim to the opera in "rock opera," while rock is only sometimes the style of the score; much of it is in triple times: waltzes, straight 3s, 12/8, sometimes the lope of a meter in 5, or 7, much decidedly non-rock genres. When the heavy emo distorted electric guitar came in, heavy on the rock mode, each time I could not help but be reminded of JC Superstar - uh-oh, somebody's gonna get a lashing! The composing is competent, sometimes compelling, a dabbling in various idioms, a bit self-consciously showing off command of the idioms, and largely derivative. There's Sondheim behind a lot of the dialogic, conversational singing, Webber and Rice (see above), hints of Richard Rodgers, and the multiple simultaneous arias that might have been lifted out of Donizetti, wonderful in all but their frequency (maybe too many simultaneous-but-isolated emotional climaxes - take another lesson from Donizetti, only use the big guns and the fireworks once).
At some level Next to Normal has the flavor of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Rent (derived from a legit, though in its day innovative, opera, La Boheme) meets Company.
Multiple threads in the development raise questions of the intentions and mode of the piece:
- is it a 21st century turn of the screw?
- is it about meds? electro-convulsive therapy?
- is it about teen drug use, and why good teens go bad? and boy gets girl?
- is it about the drama of marriage, the mountains and valleys (or lack there-of)?
- is it about amnesia, and the struggle to come back from there? is it an indictment of electro-convulsive "therapy"? is it a tip of the hat to "cuckoo's nest" - which the dialogue actually name-checks, in case you didn't get it - ?
- is it about the vengeance of a ghost, begging to not be forgotten, a tragic pinnochio begging to be allowed to be real? or is he not really an independent entity, but only the projection of each's obsession with the secret tragedy of the folly and ignorance of their youth?
The script is also unsure about its tone. Sometimes it's witty and clever, sometimes it's caustic and acid, sarcastic, sometimes it's sit-com throw-away "comic relief;" sometimes it's heavy with Albee domestic melodrama, sometimes Pinter-esque hidden menace, and much soap opera anguish from the heroine - the mix of comic/domestic/tragic/thriller is sometimes like a soup with too many spices, all of them fresh and strong - you don't know which one you're supposed to be tasting. It wants to be about everything, then it has no answers except, well, "carry on," and ends with a rousing up-beat soul-stirring anthem about "the light" (of what? Freudian analysis? near-death experiences from suicide attempts? drug overdoses? electro-shock? emotional crises? Benedict and Beatrice make up, but Nora slams the f***ing door? I couldn't figure out where the light was.)
When Nora slams the f***ing door (quietly) - I felt cheated, like I'd been asked to accept an "adult moment" in a "complicated relationship" at face value. Admittedly dad had his own issues, but the development did not convince me that a separation was justified, or that she - considering her recent history - would be allowed to walk out the door into the night by herself, with no warning or planning - and I'm being asked to believe that this is a healthy resolution of a dysfunction. It begs to be strong and feminist, I guess, but for me, it fails; it's a deus ex soap-opera non-resolution. Maybe we should stay tuned for the sequel.
This talented cast tackles an engaging score and owns it. The questions raised are not simple, and are not neatly resolved, but do address modern dilemma in a mode that makes your empathetic consideration of the issues palatable. Next to Normal is recommended for your consideration, if you can get in. It seems to be having a tendency to sell out.
Tickets and info for Oregon Contemporary Theatre's (formerly Lord Leebrick Theatre) production of Next to Normal on the web.
see also: Anna Grace, Eugene Weekly, in-depth article A Second Act on Broadway
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