Review: TheatreZone tackles crazy with 'Next to Normal'

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Actor Natale Pirrotta, center, chats with fellow cast mate Gerritt VanderMeer, bottom, before  the dress rehearsal of 'Next to Normal', which deals with the struggles of a family with a mother who is bipolar trying to live down the death of the youngest son.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Actor Natale Pirrotta, center, chats with fellow cast mate Gerritt VanderMeer, bottom, before the dress rehearsal of "Next to Normal", which deals with the struggles of a family with a mother who is bipolar trying to live down the death of the youngest son.

What: Musical about a suburban family facing a mother's mental illness

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, March 7 through Saturday, March 9 and March 14-16 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday and March 17

Where: G&L Theatre on the campus of Community School of Naples, 13275 Livingston Road, Naples

Cost: $43-$48

Information: 888-966-3352 or theatrezone- florida.com

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

TheatreZone / G & L Theatre

13275 Livingston Road, Naples, FL

— Mark Danni continues to tackle ambitious projects at TheatreZone. With critical and commercial hits "Forum" and "Grand Hotel" behind him, success augured well for edgy small-cast, sung-through musical "Next to Normal."

An off-Broadway sensation in 2008, the show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009 and won the Pulitzer Prize for in 2010. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt dive into the topic of mental illness as seen through the eyes of middle-class mother Diana Goodman and her family.

The show plays to so many of Mark Danni's strengths with its intimate staging, small cast and rock soundtrack. In many ways, it represents the type of musical that seems tailor-made for TheatreZone's intimate space.

TheatreZone's professional production of "Next to Normal" contains good - even great - moments. Those spots are simply overshadowed by critical flaws in casting and directing.

Parts of the show dazzle. "Next to Normal" delivers a rock opera beat (from Michael Horsley's thumping orchestra) that still retains a musical theatre sound. Brilliant writing makes a tough subject palatable and entertaining. Smart staging and athletic, modern choreography from Karen Molnar drive energy right out into the crowd.

The pieces just don't fall into place.

The show feels raw and rushed, a victim of TheatreZone's compact rehearsal process. Characters don't relate to each other so much as sing toward each other; some scenes feel leaden, with little movement.

TheatreZone favorite Larry Alexander, a Broadway talent, brings his titanic voice to harried husband Dan. Alexander powers the show vocally. Wait for the show-stopping eleven o'clock number "I Am the One" that crescendos in a wave of sonic pleasure.

Yet, Alexander seems an awkward pairing with Karen Molnar's Diana. While theirs is the show's critical relationship, there is little on-stage chemistry nor do their voices match well.

Molnar offers a surprising bright spot in the series of brief scenes with spoken dialogue. Tender moments with daughter Natalie (Vera Samuels) and son Gabe (David Michael Bevis) help paint a picture of a mother trapped in pain she doesn't understand.

These short but sharp scenes - and her ability to connect - ultimately provide the glue that holds the show together. I wish she brought more to the table vocally; only "I Miss the Mountains," Diana's aching ode to life without antidepressants, connects.

Samuels brings acting chops (if not the vocals) to her Natalie. She goes from overworked to petulant to pot-smoker and back to the boyfriend in two hours. She makes her troubled teen feel natural, from the leopard leggings to cute blue dress.

Bevis shines as perfect son Gabe. His angelic voice and taunting, teasing manner make for a perfect bratty teenager. Natale Pirrotta brings a brooding, moody sensibility to his Henry. Gerritt VanderMeer gifts a strong voice and overbearing presence to his Dr. Madden. Don't get too close to him.

Chris Rich designs a scaffold set. The levels, steps and ramps symbolize Diana's fluctuating brain chemistry, while the gauzy curtain hiding the band represents the hazy wall between fiction and reality for the mentally ill. Lighting wizard Phillip Watson pushes the rock-concert feel to the max with a steady beat of colors and dramatic spotlights.

Kathleen Kolacz gets creative and brilliantly beautiful with the costumes. She works with color palettes throughout the scenes, trying to indicate mood or state of being with clothing. The subtlety she achieves with basic off-the-rack clothes in hues of grey, black, red and blue adds a wonderful depth to the show.

Watch for Molnar's gorgeous black and white gown as she comes back from back from electroshock therapy - with her memories gone. Finale "Light," one of the show's strongest numbers, features individual characters deciding to live; Kolacz dresses them in the same shade of deepest ruby, the color of blood, of life.

"Next to Normal" offers an interesting, if decidedly imperfect, take on a bold musical. Much like the subject matter itself, elements of the show war with each other for dominance even as a beautiful, bruised, somewhat battered message emerges. Go for the brilliant music and unique story. Stay for glimpses of something truly gorgeous - and a hint at what the future of TheatreZone might be.

I miss the mountains. I miss the dizzy heights. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

Full Disclosure: TheatreZone founder and artistic director Mark Danni writes a monthly column about theater, titled "Floodlights," for the Naples Journal. My direct supervisor, Penny Fisher, manages production of the Naples Journal.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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