Reviewed by Jon R. Coggins
Clio Cast and Crew kicked off the 2016/2017 theatre season with a special fundraiser: Next to Normal by Tom Kitt (music), with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey.
The audience was somewhat sparse, a surprise for this venue, but there are so many things to do on a fall Friday. Those in attendance were treated to a rare experience – a show so fully developed, so wonderfully performed, by an incredibly talented cast – one could call it a once in a lifetime event.
The director – Stevie Visser, in his program address, asks the audience to accompany the cast on their journey, to engage and perhaps experience this journey on some level, so I will not give too much away. Basically the play is about a family that undergoes a tragedy and how they cope emotionally and try to continue to function as individuals and a familial unit.
Here we go. The set was sparse but engaging. Two levels with many exits and entrances (some will surprise you). The rich wood trim contrasts the starkness of the set, a table, chairs and a couch that made up the Goodman family home. It was well used and functional.
The cast was from top to bottom amazing. The backbone of the troupe was Robyn Accetta who played Diana Goodman – the family matriarch that we follow, through her descent into emotional madness. Accetta’s voice, in contrast to her slight frame, was fantastic and anchored the show and cast. She was incredible as Diana struggled to maintain a “normal” home life, even while her own was spiraling out of control. Her performance was believable at every step. The audience could not help but feel her pain and distress. An extraordinary – (I’m going to run out of superlatives) – performance. As the reviewer and perhaps against orthodoxy, I felt compelled to hug her at the end of the show. This old trouper was absolutely floored by this actress and her performance.
In a parallel story line Samantha (Sam) Campbell played the daughter, Natalie Goodman. Natalie also goes through an emotionally downward spiral nearly mirroring that of her mother’s though the reasons were different. Again, Campbell has an amazing voice and captured so – spot on – the poignant rollercoaster that was Natalie’s life. Trying desperately to maintain the normal, Natalie dabbles in drugs, drug abuse and teen romantic/sexual situations, while dealing with her family and the drama surrounding them. Campbell was great – did I mention she is but a junior in High school (Fenton) – and her understanding and interpretation of Natalie belied her tender years and harkened to someone with many, many years of life/experience under her belt. Keep an eye on this young lady.
Shawn Schultz played Dan Goodman, the family patriarch. Again his voice was fantastic, sometimes quietly ballad like – sometimes loud and forceful – always appropriate. At first I thought Dan had checked out, world wearily tired of the emotional battle. But we learn he will do anything, try anything – to get his wife and his family back to “near normal”. Schultz played Dan as strong, tender, sad, happy, helpless and eventually resigned to his fate. This actor never missed a beat – never lost a moment on stage. Well done.
Visser worked a dual role – as director (a fantastic job) and as Gabriel Goodman, the family’s son. His vocals were pure, strong, tender, haunting and so entirely appropriate in a very difficult role. Well done, young man. Well done.
In many shows there are some roles that are “throw away”, the equivalent of putting the lesser player in right field due to lack of talent or even a warm body. Not this production. Donovan Leary played Henry, Natalie’s love interest, with acclaim. Once again – another strong and appealing voice – Henry flits around the edges of the show and the family as he tries to woo Natalie. Though he introduces Natalie to pot smoking, he desperately tries to keep her from abusing prescription drugs and steadfastly remains by her side as she slides downward – a fine performance from this young man.
Rounding out the cast was Rolecia Looney in a dual role of Drs. Madden and Fine charged with treating Diana’s psychosis. As with the rest of the cast Looney had a strong and compelling voice, filling the stage and auditorium.
There was a small ensemble staffed by Gabrielle Slezak and Dennis Spence Jr. Though used sparingly they added two more strong voices to an already incredible show.
Now this: I was disappointed that the production chose to mic the set and players. I may be old school, but Clio has a wonderfully intimate venue with tremendous acoustics. The music was recorded so the old bromine of “competition with the band” was irrelevant. Additionally every single performer had incredibly strong voices and did not need mics. And as I’ve seen so many times the mics hummed, buzzed, cut out and experienced feedback. It mostly didn’t affect the show but . . .
Now having said that – this production was – from start to finish – top notch!! In my nearly 50 years of performing, directing, producing and reviewing theatrical productions I’ve never been so moved, so enthralled, so emotionally wrapped up with the cast and story. There was never a missed beat, never a letdown, never a loss of focus – not a single missed detail. The audience was rapt and appreciative to the point of a standing ovation. I wonder how the cast “came down” after such an emotional trip where everyone was so thoroughly vested.
The show is not for everyone. There are adult themes. I would encourage folks to leave the youngsters at home (why did someone bring a baby???).
Next to Normal continues its brief run on Saturday September 10th with a matinee and an evening performance and a matinee on Sunday September 11th. All performances are at Theatre 57 at 2220 W Vienna Rd Clio. Call the theatre for ticket availability or additional information (810) 687-2588.
This is a great show with a tremendous cast – don’t miss Next to Normal.