By Karen Isaacs
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks.
You could criticize practically nothing in this production. Rob Ruggiero cast it brilliantly with Christiane Noll, David Harris, Maya Keleher (in her professional debut), Nick Sacks and John Cardoza. Ruggiero used the aisles to add to the intimacy; it was remarkable.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage
This Shakespeare play is done so often, it is easy to say “oh no, not again.” But Darko Tresjnak’s production was outstanding. He balanced all the elements and did not let any one of the multiple plots overtake others. His handling of the play put on by “the mechanicals” at the ends was terrific.
Fireflies at Long Wharf
Jane Alexander, Judith Ivy and Denis Ardnt gave touching performances, creating real people in this sweet romance about an older, retired school teacher, her nosy next store neighbor, a drifter. Gordon Edelstein kept it moving and preventedit from becoming saccharine.
Rags at Goodspeed
This story of Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of New York was completely revamped for this production: extensive revisions of the book, lyrics and songs. The result wasn’t perfect but with Rob Ruggiero’s sensitive direction, this show touched the heart.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Plekey at Hartford Stage
This may have been a touring show, but James Lecesne not only was brilliant in turning his novel into a one actor play but did so much outreach in the community on the issues of teens facing bullying due to sexual orientation.
Diary of Ann Frank at Playhouse on Park
David Lewis made full use of the large and sometimes awkward stage area to create the attic in which the Franks and others hid for many years. Director Ezra Barnes cast the show almost perfectly from Isabelle Barbier as Anne to the entire ensemble. It was touching and real.
A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage
It is perhaps Shakespeare’s silliest play and director Darko Tresnjak emphasizes it beginning with his own colorful Mediterranean village set, a canal with real water and more. Who cares if the lines sometimes gets lost in the process?
Seder at Hartford Stage
How do you survive in a repressive regime? How do you make others, who have not lived through it, understand your choices? That was at the heart of this new play which thoroughly engaged me. Plus it had Mia Dillion once again showing her skills.
Wolves at TheaterWork
Wolves was a sensitive and insightful look into both the world of girls’ sports (in this case a soccer team) but also into the society that teenagers create for themselves. Though a few of the young actresses looked a little too old, we become totally engaged in them and their lives.
The Games Afoot at Ivoryton
Sometimes just seeing actors have a great time with a so-so play is more than enough. That was the case in this comic thriller by Ken Ludwig. It succeeded because of director Jacqueline Hubbard, set designer Daniel Nischan and a cast that just had fun.
The runners up
“Trav’lin’ –the 1920s Harlem Musical at Seven Angels.
It may not be a great musical, but this show introduced me to a lesser known composer – J. C. Johnson who wrote “This Joint is Jumpin’” and many others. The plot is simplistic but the cast was wonderful.
Noises Off at Connecticut Repertory Theater
My favorite farce got a fine production this summer with some inventive touches by director Vincent J. Cardinal, terrific casting and timing that was just about perfect.
Million Dollar Quartet at Ivoryton
This show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.
The Bridges of Madison County at MTC
The music is glorious and Kevin Connors created a production that worked very well on his three sided stage. While the chemistry didn’t seem to be there, musically the cast was strong.
The Great Tchaikovsky at Hartford Stage
Hershey Felder combines his talents as pianist, actor and director to create shows about the lives for well-known popular and classical composers. This show about Tchaikovsky was a delight.
Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage
Darko Tresnjak directed this version of Shaw’s masterpiece. It might have made the top ten BUT for one decision that Tresnjak made: he decided to make Boss Mangan a Donald Trump look/act alike. The similarity would have been recognizable without it and it distracted from the play.
Endgame at Long Wharf
Samuel Beckett writes difficult plays requiring an audience to understand his pessimistic world view and his abstract characters and plots. Gordon Edelstein directed a production that may not have been definitive but gave us outstanding performances by Reg E. Cathey, Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi.
Biloxi Blues at Ivoryton
This Neil Simon play, part of the Eugene trilogy got a fine production directed by Sasha Bratt that focused less on the laughs and more on the situation.
Native Son at Yale Rep
This production boasted a terrific performance by Jerod Haynes as Bigger, an urbanset by Ryan Emens and jazzy sounds by Frederick Kennedy that produced a taut, film noir feel to this story about race and prejudice.
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse
Mark Lamos, who is a fine director of Shakespeare gave us a pared down version of this classic tragedy that featured some fine performances – including Nicole Rodenburg as Juliet, Felicity Jones Latta as the Nurse, and Peter Francis James as Friar Lawrence, plus a magical set by Michael Yeargan. Lamos emphasized the youth and energy.
West Side Story at Ivoryton
This production had many more plusses – Mia Pinero as Maria, Natalie Madion as Anita, good direction by Todd L. Underwood – than minuses.
By Karen Isaacs
Connecticut’s professional theaters produced over 40 shows from June 2016 to the end of May 2017; plus various national tours played the major producing houses. Connecticut theatergoers had over 60 productions to choose from. I saw nearly 90 percent of the shows at the professional theaters and some of the national tours.
So how did the season measure up?
My top plays:
The Invisible Hand at Westport Country Playhouse
Queens for a Year at Hartford Stage
Scenes of Court Life at Yale Rep
A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage
The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage
Meteor Shower at Long Wharf
Endgame at Long Wharf
Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage
My top musicals:
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks
Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed
Gypsy at MTC
He Wrote Good Songs at Seven Angels
The top touring shows:
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelsky at Hartford Stage
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Marriage at the Bushnell
The King & I at the Bushnell
An American in Paris at the Bushnell
A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at the Bushnell
Shows that pleasantly surprised me:
Absolute Turkey at CRT
Bilox Blues at Ivoryton
Trav’ling – the Harlem Musical at Seven Angels
Half of my top plays were new – often world premieres..
Many musical productions were fine overall productions, but either not exciting shows or not exciting productions.
The Bushnell had a stellar season of national tours including the rarity of a play.
Darko Tresjnak continue to prove he is also a terrific scenic designer with Italian setting for A Comedy of Errors.
Among the Disappointments.
Unfortunately some shows that I had looked forward to disappointed me. Mostly they were well directed and well- acted, but they just did not maximize their possibilities. Sometimes it is new play which is still being developed or trying to do or say too much.
Assassins at Yale Rep. I’ve seen and liked the show in the past, but this production just missed, at least for me.
The Most Beautiful Room in New York at Long Wharf. What can I say? It didn’t live up to my expectations.
Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf. More soap opera than compelling drama.
Camelot at Westport. This minimalist version was just too minimal though the performances were fine.
But even these productions had elements that were enjoyable and were well worth seeing.
By Karen Isaacs
Bravo – Rob Ruggiero! Bravo to the outstanding cast of Next to Normal now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, May 14.
This is a fabulous production of a musical that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. The more intimate TheaterWorks venue increases our involvement in the story and our emotional attachment to the characters.
Next to Normal tells the story of Diana, a wife and mother who has battled bipolar disorder and depression for years. Her illness has impacted both her teenage daughter, Natalie, and her husband, Dan. She’s tried multiple therapies, physicians and medications; some of them work, some of them cause serious side effects and most of them cease to be helpful over time.
Her illness is characterized by seeing visions of Gabe – their son who died at 8 months of age, nearly 18 years ago. He seems to constantly be around her and he comments on the action.
This is, as one audience member said at intermission “not ‘My Fair Lady.’”
But in the capable hands of the cast and Ruggiero it is a show that will tug at your emotions. No one is the “bad guy” – not the doctors, not Diana, not Dan and not Gabe. Each is trapped in his or her own world.
Tom Kitt (composer) and Brian Yorkey (libretto and lyrics) have crafted a tight story that propels us along. In the beginning it takes time for us to realize that Gabe is his mother’s vision and not a real character and longer for us to learn what had happened.
As with any serious and chronic illness, the entire family feels the impact. Natalie feels overlooked and ignored because so much of the attention is on her mother and the mother’s mental state. She feels unloved by her mother who, perhaps as a defense mechanism after her son’s death, was reluctant to form an attachment with the baby. Diana has missed multiple events in Natalie’s life.
Dan has tried to compensate to Natalie, but his energy is also focused on helping his wife get well, accompanying her to various doctor’s appointments and trying to balance job, marriage and family.
Natalie does develop a healthy relationship with Henry, a teenage boy who provides some of the support and attention she obviously needs. But she is fearful that she may follow her mother’s path.
The story of Diana’s struggle with mental health leads to her trying ECT, what is often called electro-shock therapy which seems to help some. But who know what the long term prognosis will be. The doctors say her condition is chronic and can only be managed, not cured.
What makes this production so outstanding is the cast and the atmosphere developed by Ruggiero. He has used the aisles of the theater to bring us closer to the action. We see characters standing in the aisle observing the action just as we are.
The only time I have seen the show was the touring production that played the Bushnell several years ago. While well done, the huge theater and the huge stage created a gulf between the characters and the audience that diminished the emotional impact. That and the amplification of the sound made everything feel disembodied.
Here, we are close to the stage. We can see the expressions on the faces of the characters, we do not need blaring amplification to catch every word of both dialogue and songs. While the show is often described as a “rock” show, here much of the music seems gentler and softer.
Christane Noll who has received Tony nominations gives a subtle performance as Diana and makes the most of every song from the humorous “My Psychopharmacologist and I” to the touching “You Don’t Know” and “I Dreamed a Dance”.
Her performance is matched by David Harris as Dan, her husband. You may remember him as Billy Crocker in Goodspeed’s Anything Goes or Valjean in the Connecticut Rep’s Les Mis. Here he is tender and caring yet weary of the burdens. He and Noll are terrific in the duet “A Light in the Dark”
Maya Keleher who plays Natalie is making her professional debut. Based on this
performance of the often uncertain teenager, you can predict a successful career for her. She shows us all sides of Natalie and handles the songs well. Nick Sacks who plays Henry is also a relative newcomer (a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon) and also displays great talent. He makes Henry both gawky and touching. You believe their young love. The duet between Sacks and Keleher, “Perfect for You” and his with Harris “A Promise” are terrific.
John Cardoza has the difficult role as Gabe, Diana’s vision. It would be too easy for Gabe to become “creepy” with his often silent, hovering presence, but Cardoza doesn’t let it happen. He is a benign memory or “ghost”. J. D. Daw plays two of the medical people that Diana sees.
Wilson Chin has created one of TheaterWorks’ most elaborate sets with a turntable that allows the scenes to flow smoothly. The set features many household items including multiple table lamps, perhaps signifying the need to bring into the light the issues involving mental illness. He is aided by the lighting design of John Lasiter.
Tribute must be given to musical director Adam Souza who has helped the singers make the most of the songs as well as conducting the six piece orchestra that is hidden back stage. Ed Chapman has balanced the sound system beautifully.
Next to Normal may not be the show for everyone due to its subject matter, but it is a show for anyone who wants to see an outstanding production of a touching and moving theatrical work.
Next to Normal is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Sunday, May 14. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.
This material is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.