‘Next to Normal’ at Blackfriars Theatre

Next to Normal was the musical that changed modern perception of theater. The harrowing story of a mother plagued by mental illness and its effect on her family garnered Tony wins for Original Score, Orchestrations, and Lead Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, the original Diana. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, and paved the way for the commercial success of musicals like Dear Evan Hansen. It’s one of my personal favorites.

I made the snowy trek to Blackfriars Theatre from Buffalo, and my first thought upon arrival was how impressed I was by the endurance of this downtown Rochester staple; they’re celebrating their 70th anniversary! And as far as this production goes, the company proved exactly why they’ve continued to be successful.

Janine Mercandetti brings a unique approach to Diana, the story’s troubled matriarch. She’s an accomplished singer, and could out-sing even the healthiest Alice Ripley. Her vocal quality is clear, her notes are precise, and her phrasing is excellent. I personally felt that either because of the direction of the piece or Mercandetti’s own choices, her early Act One seemed a little presentational. I saw a marked change, however, at the pivotal moment in Act One. From that point on, Mercandetti takes control of the show, and it’s an award-worthy performance.

J. Simmons plays Dan, Diana’s husband, who’s holding on hope of a life where his family can be free of the mental illness and grief they’ve suffered. He’s Diana’s perfect foil, and Simmons plays the extremely difficult role with aplomb. Dan is an architect, and Simmons’ interpretation is very architectural: he deals in absolutes. There’s no grey area. I truly enjoyed his work in “Why Stay/A Promise.”

As the Goodman children, Gabe and Natalie, rising professionals Zachary Jones and Haley Knips both possess an impressive amount of raw talent. Both are juniors at Nazareth College, and the school should be proud of the representation by the two young actors. Jones has a remarkable vocal instrument, a clear tenor with a sweet falsetto that’s likely the envy of his classmate. More impressive was his navigation of what sounded to be a voice not at 100%. His role is complicated, and his nuance and relationship with Mercandetti made for an impressive evening. Knips has a difficult job as the source of much of the evening’s humor, and for the most part she handles the role of Natalie well. Her singing voice is her best asset, and she adds some delightful touches as Natalie. There were moments, however, where she had a tendency to speed through lines, especially punchlines, resulting in a lack of clarity in some essential story moments.

In supporting roles as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden and Henry, respectively, Carl Del Buono and Evan Miller Watelet add to the well-rounded narrative. Del Buono is delightful in his roles, especially Dr. Madden. He’s accomplishing something really impressive: driving the story without ever touching the wheel. It’s not an easy task. Miller Watelet plays Natalie’s boyfriend Henry with a genuine innocence and has an excellent voice to boot.

The ENTIRE production staff, especially Director Kerry Young and Musical Director Andy Pratt, deserve commendation. What an impressive use of playing space, what a careful treatment of the delicate issues in the piece, what clear and concise storytelling! Young is also to be celebrated for her blind casting. Next to Normal has a tendency to (until the recent Kennedy Center production starring Brandon Victor Dixon as Dan, Khamary Rose as Gabe, and Maia Reficco as Natalie) be whitewashed. Pratt’s band was extremely talented, with a few opening night hiccups in this difficult score.

I’ll leave readers with this thought: I hate standing ovations as the accepted “standard.” They should be reserved for excellence, performances that exceed expectations. I was one of the first to leap to my feet at this production, and if you are lucky enough to see it, I’m sure you will too.

Running through February 23rd, the show was 2 hours and fifteen minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.

For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Mauritius’ at Blackfriars Theatre

Did you know there is a seedy underbelly of the stamp collecting world? Me neither. The plot of this play sounded almost like a spoof and I wondered what I was in for. I invited a good friend to come along for the ride. It turns out her father was an avid stamp collector. She was intrigued.

The play centers on a young woman named Jackie, played by Fiona Criddle, whose mother recently died and left her a stamp collection, and apparently a boat-load of debt. Jackie knows nothing about stamps and ends up turning to three men who possess varying intensities of dubious and nefarious intent toward Jackie and her stamps. Enter the estranged half-sister, Mary (Stephanie Sheak), who believes the stamps belong to her.

In this play emotions run high when it is discovered that there are some insanely valuable stamps in the collection. The most dangerous of the three men, Sterling (J. Simmons), is a menacing figure who is willing to pay a high price for the stamps. Dennis (Danny Hoskins), is a slippery operator who sees a potential payday if he can manipulate Jackie and control Sterling. Philip (Jeff Siuda), the professional philatelist, has some sort of dark history with Sterling that helps him ease into an unethical position. The hard-to-pin-down, Mary, is difficult to like. She tries to manipulate Jackie, and no one quite believes she wants the stamps for their sentimental value.

Ms. Criddle’s performance has depth and credibility portraying someone who has had to deal with trauma and desperately needs a way to emerge from its aftermath. Mr. Hoskins  sensitively handles his character as he vacillates between wanting a big payout and beginning to care for Jackie.

During the play I wondered if my companion’s knowledge of stamps helped her see the twists in the plot before I did. Because the story had so much to do with the psychological and emotional states of each character, knowing about stamps was not much of an edge. There are many mysterious sub-texts hinted at and not fully explained. The parallels between human lives and rare stamps are clearly drawn in how their flaws, mysteries, back stories, and desirability are all a little nebulous–and the effects of which can change with time and memory.

All in all, it was a great opening night performance in a cosy inviting theatre.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 min, plus a 15-minute intermission

“Mauritius” runs from March 22 – April 7 at Blackfriars Theatre in Rochester NY. For more information, click here.



Theatre Review: ‘Ordinary Days’ at Blackfriars Theatre

The cast of ‘Ordinary Days’ at Blackfriars Theatre. Photo by Megan Colombo.

Within the ordinary hides the potential for the extraordinary. Set in New York City circa 2008, “Ordinary Days” follows the lives of four ordinary individuals. Each a transplant to the city, having their own hopes and dreams, their own “big picture,” yet each struggles with what it means when inevitably life happens and their picture has changed from a classic portrait to a modern art abstract.

The acting is superb. . .

Warren (Hector Manuel) and Deb (Kit Prelewitz) are fresh faced twenty-somethings, their ideals still intact when the audience first meets them. Doubt in their grand plans slowly creeps in as the reality of day to day living in a city like New York starts to become apparent. While Deb holds fast to her original plans, becoming more rigid and jaded in the process, Warren has an easier time of holding on to his sunny outlook on life by letting go of his expectations, and more clearly seeing the “big picture” for what it really is.

Jason (Colin D. Pazik) and Claire (Emily Putnam) are a couple in their thirties, struggling to figure out what their next steps are in life. Having more life experience than Warren and Deb, both know that life plans can change in a moment. On the surface, their paths seem to be joined, but when they look deeper into their life picture, they start to wonder if they are starting to diverge from each other.

As a former New Yorker myself, I loved this musical. Frequent references to New York City landmarks (The Met, Penn Station, Union Square) made me nostalgic for my own time in “The City.” I could relate so much to the idealism of Warren and Deb, having come to New York as a twenty-something myself, as well as the more experienced reality of what life really is as seen through the eyes of Jason and Claire. Hector Manuel’s portrayal of Warren was a refreshing balance of comedy to the edgy stress of Kit Prelewitz’s Deb. Colin D. Pazik’s Jason still holds on to fragments of that idealism that brought him to New York to begin with, but Emily Putnam’s Claire has clearly lost that. (We find out why later in the production.)

The production is done well. The acting is superb, each actor exploring the depths of what goes through an individual’s inner dialog in these ordinary day moments. I particularly liked Hector’s ability to insert humor within each of his scenes and Kit’s frequent ramp ups to an apparent crisis with a sudden aside that brings us all down to the reality of the situation. The scenery is minimal but once the actors are on stage they are able to create the scene with ease for the audience. New York City, a fifth character, comes alive under the talent of these four individuals. The hustle and bustle of the city streets, the often cramped living and travel conditions, the underlying frustration of trying to get around, as well as the gloriousness that the city has to offer all come through like a beautiful Monet painting. Musical Director, Andy Pratt’s Billy Joel-like piano man, has a wonderful ability to play the music as well as simultaneously deliver witty wordless “lines” adding to the underlying comedy of the production.

“Ordinary Days” leaves you with so much to think about in the end. How life can change in an instant. How seemingly ordinary moments can tell a lifetime of stories. How a picture at first glance can seem simple but can hold a depth of complexity that would have been missed if we hadn’t taken the time to really savor it. Finding that, while it’s the extraordinary that often changes the trajectories of our lives, it’s the ordinary of every day that brings meaning to them.

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

“Ordinary Days” is playing at Blackfriars Theatre until February 17, 2018 in Rochester. For more information, click here.