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NEXT TO NORMAL
Music by Tom Kitt
Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
(Regional Premiere)

Uptown Players

Directed by Michael Serrecchia
Music Direction by Scott A. Eckert
Scenic Design by Andy Redmon
Lighting Design by Jason Foster
Costume Design by Suzi Cranford
Sound Design by Virgil Justice
Hair Design by Robert Emery and Coy Covington
Make up Design by Coy Covington
Stage Management by David Velarde


CAST

Diana Goodman - Patty Breckenridge
Dan Goodman - Gary Floyd
Natalie Goodman - Erica Harte
Gabriel "Gabe" Goodman - Anthony Carillo
Henry - Jonathan W. Gilland
Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden - Jonathan Bragg






Reviewed Performance 6/17/2011

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

There are two camps of thought within the cult known as musical theater aficionados. Well really they are more like hard core addicts who consider the musical their drug of choice they can never get enough of.

These addicts will do one of the following when a new musical opens on Broadway:

(1) The second the original cast recording is available they purchase it and listen to it in endlessly until they memorize every song & every lyric. Even though they have not actually seen the show they will buy that recording hot off the press.

(2) The addict will wait until they have actually seen the production and then decide to either purchase the cast recording or not.

For years I was the first one. When the official release date came I bought that cast recording. But slowly I began to notice how difficult it was to soak it all in with just listening to the score. Songs seemed odd, not understandable in context, unmelodic, or left me completely uninspired after several listenings. So I stopped buying them. From that point on I would wait until after I saw the actual production before deciding if I would take out my wallet or not. This new theory saved me money from buying such dreg as the cast recordings of SHREK, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.

During the 2009 Tony Awards telecast it was the battle between Elton John's BILLY ELLIOT and NEXT TO NORMAL. When the latter's original cast, led by Alice Ripley, performed their number I was not impressed nor did it spark any fire within me. It wasn't melodic or memorable. I just didn't get it. The only thing that NEXT TO NORMAL made memorable on the telecast was Alice Ripley's bizarre, perplexing acceptance speech. Theater & Broadway internet chat rooms and face book pages of theater folk tore into her that very night.

The musical would win Best score over Elton John's BILLY ELLIOT and two other awards out of its eleven nominations.

NEXT TO NORMAL was first created as a 10 minute piece in 1998 titled FEELING ELECTRIC. It was then expanded and had a workshop run in 2005 at the Village Theater. It would go on to have two more workshops in 2006 and 2007.

Finally the musical had its Off-Broadway debut, now re-titled NEXT TO NORMAL, in 2008 where it was met with lukewarm response from the critics. The show was once again drastically retooled and had a regional premiere at Arena Stage and it was here it found critical success.

A fun fact was that several big Broadway stars actually performed in the various workshops and readings during its five year process including Anthony Rapp, Norbert Leo Butz, Amy Spanger, Sherie Rene Scott, Devin Day, Greg Edelman, and Brian d'Arcy James. James was supposed to reprise his role for the Broadway production but instead donned green make up and took the lead role in SHREK. JERSEY BOYS' original cast member J. Robert Spencer took over the role of Dan.

The final product opened on Broadway in April 2009 and became a major financial and critical success. The producers actually recouped their initial investment the very week of their one year anniversary on the great White way. The musical would play for 733 performances before closing in January 2011.

Currently there is a national tour headlined by Tony winner Ripley that is making its way across America. Alas the tour is not scheduled to come through the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But thanks to the tour detouring Texas, Dallas's Uptown Players is given a stroke of great luck, securing the rights to produce the regional premiere.

The story follows a family on the crest of total destruction, hanging on by a tiny thread. A wife and mother has been bipolar for 16 years. She has a young son who is the apple of her eye and a daughter who has no connection whatsoever to her mother. Their father is desperately clinging for dear life, trying to hold his family intact. This is a very dark, intense, dramatic, and emotionally tough piece. I savored every second of it. I love big, glitzy, splashy musicals just like the next addict but I also crave material like this.

It is with a great tremendous sigh of relief that the score does not produce the same amount of yawns as it did on the Tony telecast. Far from it.

Tom Kitt's score is a rapturous, melodic, dynamic interwoven
cloth of emotion that covers the audience's heart. Kitt's score has the undertones of current composers such as Jonathan Larsen, William Finn, James Robert Brown, Duncan Sheik, and Michael LaChiusa. What I most admire about the score is that Kitt does not try to be a snooty elitist attempting to become the next Stephen Sondheim. Too many of today's composers fall into a pit hole reaching for that goal. Be your own voice I say!

The music is crafted in pop, rock, alternative genres and even a tinge of bluegrass here and there. It is heavy on the ballad side but here is the miracle - it actually fits in perfect harmony with the emotion. Brian Yorkey's lyrics are outstanding in subtext and are epic in giving us character development and arcs. Yorkey's lyrics peel deep down to the inner soul and minds of these characters letting the audience fully grasp what each character sees through their eyes and feels deep in their hearts.

The only minor flaw is the book. At times Yorkey's book steers off course and in a few scenes veers close to becoming overly melodramatic. A few book scenes come off clunky and trip over the emotional tapestry the score and lyrics lay out. But this only happens a few times.

Michael Serrecchia directs the piece with an artistically fine tooth comb. From the staging and blocking, to bringing out the very best within each performer, Serrecchia's direction is transcendent and peerless. Serrecchia directed one of the best musicals ever done in the metroplex with the phenomenal NINE at ICT Mainstage two years ago. But with NEXT TO NORMAL he outdoes himself directing one of the most powerful and emotional musicals ever on a Dallas-Fort Worth stage.

Musical Director Scott A. Eckert assembles one of the finest live orchestras that I have heard in my twenty plus years living in Texas. This six piece band brings Kitt's music to such rich, detailed, robust vitality it floors you. They consist of Eckert at keyboards, Rick Norman on bass, Dennis Langevin on guitar, Sarah O'Neill on violin, Jeff Harvick on cello, and Steve Begnoche on percussion. Ah, live strings; how rare it is that a local theater company hires actual live strings instead of using synthesized keyboards as a replacement for them. Remember the names of these musicians. These are some of the finest musicians to ever play in an orchestra pit here in the DFW area.

I don't know if Uptown invested in a new sound system or not but the sound design by Virgil Justice is magnificent. This is the first show I've seen at Uptown where the sound is crystal clear. The balance of voice and orchestra is simply sublime harmony. Neither overpowers the other. Even the special sound effects for some vocals and scenes are carefully fashioned with pristine clarity.

Andy Redmon's scenic design is visually astounding. A towering three level house with runways, pyramid-like stairs, and large wooden panels for the bottom walls. I take the set to be a subtext for the family's plight. That this family's stack upon stack of emotional emptiness reflects within the set. I particularly like the silver cylinder light fixtures that Redmon creates for each floor. It gives the set an ultra modern look. Could this also be another layer of the book's subtext in Redmon's set? Could the floors and cylinder fixtures resemble the birthday cake that fits so dramatically in the piece? This is Redmon's crowning achievement in scenic design.

Jason Foster's lighting design is 100% pure emotional subtext. Each song's music and emotion is immersed in mellifluous color. Foster knows precisely where the lighting is needed to give the actor a blanket of color to anchor their emotions, singing strength, and subtext power. Foster designs special lighting to give the compelling painful moments that perfect balance that actually enhances the dark pathos of pain exposed within the performances.

Uptown Players brings back one of my all time personal favorite couples, Patty Breckenridge and Gary Floyd. Both delivered electrifying work in Uptown's AIDA several seasons ago. Here they surpass themselves, giving the performances of their lives in NEXT TO NORMAL.

The chemistry was already there from AIDA but now it is strengthened even more with their roles of Diana and Dan. The energy and subtext between these two radiates from beginning to end. Many of their vocal duets are great reflections of that. If you do not shed a tear after their duet, "A Light in the Dark", then you need to visit the Wizard for a heart.

Breckenridge's singing voice is now much stronger. She possesses an even bigger range in her soprano voice with a belt that is strengthened with an immaculate vibrato. You almost swear that Kitt wrote Diana's music specifically for Breckenridge. There are so many great songs within the libretto to pick as highlights from Breckenridge, including "I Miss the Mountains", "The Break", "Maybe", and "So Anyway".

But the marvel here is Breckenridge's acting craft. She does not "play" Diana so much as takes the role deep within her. I've never seen this talented woman deliver such a multi-layered, tenebrous performance of pathos as this one. There are times when she transcends so deep into the role you have to look away from the emotional carnage Diana is going through. It becomes too real, all due to Breckenridge's portrayal. There is graphic - and I mean graphic - harsh reality within Diana's life that is so hard to watch. It's no longer a musical; it is real life. Breckenridge's tour de force monumental performance will have people talking about it for seasons to come.

Gary Floyd portrays Dan, Diana's husband, a man who loves his wife so much he is willing to take the ride along side her drug induced, mental haunted house of a mind and emotion rollercoaster. As we discover what Diana has put him and their children through you wonder why he stays. Floyd shows us exactly why in his spectacular performance. He too immerses himself by penetrating deep into the subtext and arc that is Dan. Floyd has never disappointed me in any show I've seen him in. For this role he gives what will be one of the most memorable, heartbreaking, gut wrenching performances future actors will aspire to in years to come. Floyd is the heart of the piece; the one piercing light of hope this family needs in order to survive. Floyd is known for having one of the most beautiful singing voices in this theater community but it is his acting craft and compelling subtext that stays with you. Floyd has several outstanding solos to sing. But his second act music will devastate you. Several of his songs in Act Two reveal so much, and Floyd aims for your heart in each solo. When Dan sings "I Am the One" with his son Gabe, I couldn't stop the tears from flowing. Floyd's work in NEXT TO NORMAL is a remarkable, unparallel performance.

This is my first time to see Erica Harte on stage and all I can say is where on earth did this girl come from? She is a powerhouse of talent that explodes in NEXT TO NORMAL. Harte is Natalie, Dan and Diana's daughter, a music student who falls in love with a fellow music student who digs pot. But Natalie has to deal with a mother who has put her brother on a golden pedestal while completely ignoring her. You find out why as the story develops and it will kick you hard in the stomach. Harte has an exquisite face that displays Natalie's difficult life like an illuminated billboard. Your heart breaks for the girl. In fact her role hit a little too close to home for this critic which is why I relate so much to Harte's character and performance. Harte's subtext bleeds out in explicit realism. Like the others, she too has some marvelous solos throughout the score. The two songs that ripped me emotionally apart are "Wish I Were Here" and "Why Stay", both duets with Breckenridge. Harte's eyes well up in tears as she attempts, then screams internally, to make her mother understand her, to see her right in front of her face, to love her. Harte goes for the emotional core and comes up with a stunning performance.

Rounding the cast are a trio of actors delivering superlative work in this production. Jonathan Bragg portrays the two doctors. While the book fails those two roles a little, musically the roles are fleshed out with glowing success. Bragg possesses vivid stage presence, filling up that towering set, and then some. He gives both doctors their own characterizations which work flawlessly. Bragg sings with a booming baritone voice that floats effortlessly on a very controlled vibrato. I love the surprise one of the doctors has on Diana and Bragg relishes in that element on stage. In the second act Bragg shows great restraint from portraying the dramatic subtext in a "paint by number" acting style the role can easily fall prey to. Instead, Bragg's choices are both original and hit the dramatic weight they require.

Jonathan W. Gilland portrays Henry, Natalie's boyfriend who studies jazz and who loves his pot. This role is also restricted as a less defined character within the book. Henry can easily be played as a cookie cutter portrayal of a stoner. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt to prove it. A very talented actor, Gilland avoids this stereotype and gives the role solid realism as a teen who digs his doobie but has a clear, level-headed mind and heart when it comes to Natalie. Gilland and Harte have engrossing chemistry that makes us sincerely believe their struggle to not only love each other but to also stay together. Gilland delivers compassionate sincerity in the song "A Promise" (along with Floyd) that is another tear flowing moment in the musical.

Gabe, Dan and Diana's son, is portrayed by Anthony Carillo who has a set of vocal pipes that demand a recording contract. His is a sublime, soaring, extraordinary singing voice that sits on one of the most crystal immaculate vibratos I've heard from a tenor. Carillo has riveting, dynamic stage presence that works incredibly for his character. You'll see why when you see the show.

Carillo uses facial expressions and body language to pour not only within his subtext and characterization, but also onto his parents and sister. His interaction with Breckenridge and Floyd is riveting to watch. As with the rest of the cast his role has some striking songs to sing. His finest vocal moments, mixing with first rate acting are in the songs "I'm Alive" and the aforementioned duet with Floyd, "I am the One". Those two show stopping numbers are stellar creations by Carillo.

I have seen many productions at Uptown Players over the seasons but this one ? well, this one - stands alone as the best musical this company has ever mounted. What Uptown Players creates with their production of NEXT TO NORMAL can be summed up in four words: It is a masterpiece.




NEXT TO NORMAL (Regional Premiere)
Music by Tom Kitt, Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Uptown Players

Through July 3, 2011

Shows are 8:00 pm Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 pm on Sundays. Individual tickets are $30-50 and can be purchased at www.uptownplayers.org or by calling 214-219-2718.

Performed at the Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd (entrance off Blackburn) Dallas,TX 75219