‘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: ‘A Bronx Tale The Musical’ at RBTL Auditorium Theatre

When someone mentions A Bronx Tale, it almost inevitably elicits a response from those gathered around. It started as a one-man show featuring Chazz Palminteri, whose real-life story the narrative mirrors. He also created the character of Sonny in the acclaimed film, a directorial debut for Robert DeNiro (who also starred as Lorenzo, Calogero’s father) So when adapting the film, it makes sense that Palminteri and DeNiro be involved. Together with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, Palminteri has done a wonderful job with that adaptation. DeNiro and Broadway legend Jerry Zaks co-directed the Broadway production, which has started its national tour in Rochester, NY in the beautiful RBTL Auditorium Theatre.

. . . the national tour of ‘A Bronx Tale’ is a blessing.

‘I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway production twice, once two days before the opening night performance, and once about a month before the production received its closing notice. Both times I saw the production, Chazz was not only present but engaged with every SINGLE fan who approached him. It’s clear he loves this show. The love for the material reflects in this national tour production, from directors and creative team to swings and ensemble members. This is no doubt aided by the fact that eleven members of the twenty-seven person cast were involved with the production on Broadway. The ensemble has endless energy, and each member of the cast is on the same page with the “Bronx style” humor of the book; sometimes loud, sometimes crude, always honest. Palminteri’s book has traces of the film, and it pops. It feels organic and real. Menken’s music is good enough to outshine some of Slater’s campier lyrics, which might be the only weakness to the show.

As the adult Calogero, who also serves as the show’s narrator, Joey Barreiro is the right balance of edgy and virtuous. He approaches the part with a wide-eyed eagerness that works to humanize “C” in a way I don’t know if I’ve noticed before. His juvenile self, played in this production by Frankie Leoni, is a plum role for a young male on Broadway. The actor must be a true triple threat, and Leoni is up to the challenge. His performance benefits from being honed on Broadway.

Joe Barbara, as Sonny, is also fresh from the Broadway production. He is a softer Sonny than I’ve seen and reads closer in age to Chazz than original Broadway Sonny Nick Cordero. That being said, I appreciate Barbara not playing the caricature and really diving in to the material to find new moments. As Calogero’s forbidden love interest Jane, Brianna-Marie Bell’s powerful voice soars through Menken’s score. She’s the paragon of a healthy and powerful singer, and her duet with Barreiro in Act Two is a performance highlight.

All these excellent performances aside, the one that captivated me on Broadway was that of Richard H. Blake. Now I’ll admit that my bias is at work here, Blake is one of the most genuine performers and human beings I’ve had the privilege of interacting with. Blake’s reprisal of his Broadway role, Lorenzo,  stops the show. His rousing call to Calogero at the end of Act One to shun the life of “These Streets” is not only well-sung, but transitions seamlessly between dialogue and song. Blake tackles Lorenzo with ease, his real-life fatherhood no doubt informing some of his scenes with the young Leoni. Helping his character development along is Michelle Aravena as Calogero’s mother, Rosina in her Act Two “Look to Your Heart (reprise)” Aravena is a skilled singer and performer, and the family chemistry between Barreiro, Blake, and Aravena is exactly what Palminteri intended in his book.

All in all, the national tour of A Bronx Tale is a blessing. The show didn’t run nearly long enough on Broadway, in my opinion, so the opportunity to see the production again in person was one I jumped at. If you’re okay with significant adult language and situations, you should jump as well.

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“A Bronx Tale The Musical” runs until October 21, 2018 and is presented at the RBTL Auditorium Theatre in Rochester. For more information, click here.