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Photo by Tammy Cassesa.

NEXT TO NORMAL presented by the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre through Oct. 21. Click here for a synopsis and more information on the production. I attended the opening night performance.

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Leslie Kelly as Natalie. Photo by Tammy Cassesa.

The Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre kicks off its 2018-19 District Season with NEXT TO NORMAL, “an unflinching look at a suburban family struggling with the effects of mental illness” – Music Theatre International

Director Matthew Wilson has assembled a vocally strong, talented ensemble. Tanner Gleeson and Leslie Kelly as siblings Gabe and Natalie have some of my favorite songs in the show and handled them beautifully. Brian Anderson as father Dan and Lesley Hitch in the very demanding role of wife and mother Diana are up to the vocal requirements of the show. Both Elliot Handkins as Henry and Derek Harper as the Doctors do well in their supporting roles.

I think I understand what Brett Bowling was going for with the set design and it probably looked more functional on paper or as a model, but the reality of the set had several problems. The first level play areas seemed a bit small and confining, causing some awkward blocking as the actors tried to cross past each other. An extra couple of feet added to the front of the set would have helped. Actors also had to break stride to keep from hitting their heads when they used the upstage exit from the living room. The central narrow staircase, without handrails, had actors tentatively crossing down them, and two different actors tripped going up them opening night. Performers had to duck under a railing to cross from the staircase to the second level platform upstage left. I did like the askew roof and second level, and would have like to have seen that motif carried to the first floor.

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Tanner Gleeson as Gabe. Photo by Tammy Cassesa.

The balance between the band and vocals was good throughout most of the production. There were a few times when the band comes in hot and briefly drowns out the vocalist(s). Also near the end of the opening number, during the individual lyrics, things got muddy.

My main complaint for the show can be summed up in one sentence. “I can’t see your faces.” There are several reasons for this:

Lighting – Several times actor’s faces would disappear due to gaps in the lighting or in the instrument’s location. The best example I can give for this is when someone is sitting in the living room chair and is lit in blue. The light seems to be coming mostly from above causing actors faces to disappear in shadow, especially Diana. I almost feel the theater needs additional/stronger instruments low in the back of the house. The angle for the lights closer to the stage seem too steep for some lighting needs.

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Elliot Handkins as Henry & Leslie Kelly as Natalie. Brian Anderson as Dan & Lesley Hitch as Diana. Photo by Tammy Cassesa.

Blocking – Several times with only one actor seated at the kitchen table, they sat in the downstage right chair. This placed the actor’s back to most of the audience, putting them immediately at a visual disadvantage. Simply shifting them to the upstage side of the table eliminates the problem. There was a similar issue in the scenes played stage left. If Diana is moved to the stronger position of the other chair, she is immediately open to the entire audience. Also, across the cast, actors were standing completely in profile to each other. If your shoulders are pointing upstage and to the booth, odds are good you are upstaging yourself.

Performance – Some of this goes in hand with the blocking. Some of this is due to the contemporary nature of the show. Don’t be so concerned with making constant eye contact with your scene partners. Every song is not a ballad. In fact you might be better served to think of your lyrics as lines. Some words need emotion and emphasis behind them. Don’t be a total slave to the music. Break the traditional musical theater habits (this note is mainly for the more experienced musical theatre performers). If you are on stage during someone else’s number, actively listen and react to their words. Many times the person not singing would just “freeze” on stage. Remember at the Incline, much of the audience is below you. If you are singing to a point above the sound booth, you are aiming too high, so keep those chins down.

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Lesley Hitch as Diana, Derek Harper as Dr. Fine & cast. Photo by Tammy Cassesa.

Bottom line: remember this is a story you are telling to the audience, not to each other on stage. I hope these points don’t come across as harsh because they are not meant to be and I think they are easily addressable. It is simply the frequency of these issues that kept me from being pulled into the story. The elements are there, but I feel you just need to connect emotionally with the songs, each other, and the audience to bring the show to its full potential. I expect the show to only get stronger over the course of the run.

My rating: 4.0 out of 5.

I would enjoy hearing what you think about the show or my review. All I ask is that you express your opinion without attacking someone else’s opinion. You can post your comments below.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

One response to “NEXT TO NORMAL Review

  1. Matt Hudson

    I enjoyed your observations, and think you pinpointed a lot of hurdles for the performance. For me, Leslie Kelly (Natalie) set the bar for the ensemble. A dynamo soloist, and together with Elliot Handkins (Henry), they offered some incredible renditions of numbers I hadn’t paid too much attention to in the past. Definitely a strong Natalie/Henry show. Great chemistry!

    Also, The two Les-lees: Lesley Hitch (Diane) and Leslie Kelly worked extremely well together, especially on “Everything” – a very touching moment!

    Others were a bit more unpredictable, hitting one number out of the park, but coming up with pitch problems on others. Very great vocals comparatively, nevertheless, as this book IS incredibly demanding. Gleeson certainly stepped up to the challenge on several occasions as Gabe,

    Elements that worked against the ensemble: The set was neither appealing, nor functional – I severely disliked it for it’s community theater feel and for the reasons mentioned above. The staircase in the middle was more of an obstruction than useful. Some of the entrances through a maze of lumber reminded me of hamsters in a see-through habitat. The quality of furniture selected screamed of hasty thrift store finds.For me the Goodmans are both college grads and well off.

    Way too much going on with the dinette set. Sleeker lines and much less of them definitely called for! (a proper-sized pedestal table with some simple parsons chairs would remedy the cluttered and cramped set considerably.)

    The strings (violin/cello) in the pit sounded rather inexperienced and constantly detracted from the overall vocal efforts of the ensemble. I attended the second night. Rock musicals can often struggle with the blend of instumental/vocals – this one fared extremely well. Wanting a little more “punch” on some of the hits – Natalie’s “Dammit! She’s not there, she’s not there”, for example. Hit that musical phrase HARD! Also wanting a bit more rocky grit, mystery and manipulation in the hypnosis scene for the doctor. Did not care for the massage at the beginning of the number at all! He’s a shady, jaded doctor – not Diana’s cabana boy!

    Yes, the lighting and chin angles unforgivable at times. Would have liked to have seen the doctor played a little more authoritative and stoic; Dan, a little less emotional, more compelled to “suck it up and keep it inside”. Both beautiful voices, but not entirely convincing in their roles. I saw actors. Felt costume choices in some scenes were also a bit recklessly selected. I felt Henry too clean-cut as a stoner.

    With all that now aired, I try to see this show wherever I can, and this is most decidedly the best of any amateur/semi professional rendition I have seen! (Excepting the set design.) A very satisfying evening with numerous unforgettable moments and plenty of talent to keep an eye on!


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