Saturday, November 26, 2016


Mental disorder handled with heart, wit, in exuberant Next To Normal

One of the most interesting things about the Jewel Theatre Company is its choice of material. Sure, they produce their share of the classics — Pinter, Shepard, Athol Fugard, Noel Coward — but Artistic Director Julie James also has a sharp eye for innovative work less familiar to local audiences.

Case in point: Next To Normal, the exhilarating second production in JTC's  ongoing 12th season. This show also marks the company's first anniversary in its new space, the Colligan Theater at The Tannery (where they opened last November with Guys And Dolls).

Next To Normal is also a musical, but there's nothing old-school about it. Produced on Broadway in 2009, the show won a couple of Tonys, along with a  Pulitzer Prize, for its audacious depiction of a wife and mother with bipolar disorder whose struggles to cope with her husband, her family, and herself, are surprisingly universal.
Schmitto, with Payne: outstanding

With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this is not the kind of musical that comes with show tunes and a chorus line.

It's more like a rock operetta, with almost non-stop music provided in this production by an onstage jazz-rock combo (ably led by keyboardist Katie Coleman) and a cast of six terrific singers.

The music ranges from lyrical to powerhouse, the lyrics are insightful, and the singers perform it in an endlessly inventive series of duets, quartets, and counterpoints.

The story revolves around Diana (Lee Ann Payne), a suburban housewife struggling to get a grip on herself in order to hold her family together. Husband Dan (Christopher Reber) has stuck with her through all the peaks and valleys of her illness.

Payne and Reber: getting a grip
Son Gabe (the outstanding Coleton Schmitto) is the apple of his mother's eye. Teenage daughter Natalie (a poignant, affecting Brittany Law), a scholastic overachiever, also plays keyboards, embracing the classical precision of Mozart as an antidote to the chaos at home.

Payne sings up a storm; she captures Diana's wry wit, and articulates the emotional terrain of each number. Reber's rumpled, loyal Dan, trying to do his best, partners her beautifully. Married in real life, they last appeared onstage together for JTC in the fabulous film noir musical, Gunmetal Blues. (He was the gumshoe; she was the blonde who popped up in all the female roles.)

James (who also directs this production) keeps the action brisk and the audience engaged. The exuberance of this production is what live theatre is all about.

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