Sunday, June 11, 2023

"Next to Normal" at Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Twenty-five years of Peter Rothstein as Artistic Director of Theater Latte Da culminate in his final directing role, for the brilliant musical Next to Normal. Peter told us on the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' new podcast "Twin Cities Theater Chat" that he's been wanting to direct this piece since he saw the Off-Broadway production prior to its 2009 Broadway debut, and the timing fortuitously worked out to be his last show with Latte Da. I've seen the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical seven times previously (the Broadway production three times plus four local productions) and this is as good of a production as I've ever seen. With Peter's usual clear eye for the emotional truth of the piece, this production hits every note, both musically and thematically. The local six-person cast is endlessly talented, and pours their hearts and souls out so fully, I'm not sure how they can continue to do it six times a week for a month and a half. Watching it is an emotionally exhausting but also fulfilling experience; it's a truly phenomenal production of one of the best musicals of this century. The show runs through July 16 but I highly recommend you get your tickets now before it sells out.

Next to Normal tells the story of what at first appears to be a "normal" American family, until the cracks begin to show. Diana and her husband Dan married young and started a family. They suffered a great tragedy that triggered Diana's bipolar disorder, which she's been dealing with for years. Everyone in the family suffers in their own way. Dan has to be the strong one as Diana falls apart, and therefore never gets the chance to deal with his own feelings about what happened. Their children, Gabe and Natalie, live in the shadow of the tragedy and are trying to deal with it on top of the normal problems that come with adolescence. Natalie's afraid that she'll follow in her mother's footsteps, and Diana's unable to be the mother that she wants to be. Diana hits rock bottom and undergoes ECT, aka shock therapy. It erases her memories, both the good and the bad, and she struggles to get her life and family back. Eventually they learn that there is no such thing as a "normal" family; all families look different and are dealing with their own unique issues, both big and small. The Goodmans struggle to find a way to get through theirs, and show us just what is possible with love.*

Diana and Dan with their son Gabe
(Erin Capello, Matt Riehle, and Kyle Weiler, photo by Dan Norman)
I'm never sure with Peter Rothstein-led shows if he's somehow able to find and cast the perfect actor for each role, or if he guides the actor he's cast into a performance that makes it look like they're perfect for the role. Either way, this cast is perfection. While this is an ensemble show, the character of Diana is at the heart of it, and Erin Capello gives a truly gut-wrenching performance, plumbing the emotional depths of the character. And her voice is stunningly gorgeous, from the lovely ballad "I Miss the Mountains" to powerhouse rock songs like "You Don't Know." I've listened to the OBC recording countless times, but Erin brought out things in these songs I've never heard. She's well matched in Matt Riehle as Dan, who also has a fantastic voice (well suited to this score as a member of rock cover bands) and conveys the emotional truth of the husband and father working so hard to keep it all together, that he doesn't have time to feel or grieve himself.

Gabe with Natalie and Henry (Kyle Weiler,
Audrey Mojica, and Sayer Keeley, photo by Dan Norman)
Playing the teenage Natalie and her boyfriend are a couple of teenagers. We have such talented kids in this town (see also An American Tail closing soon at Children's Theatre Company), and they grow up to be talented adult actors. St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA) 11th grader Audrey Mojica has been in several productions at CTC, including multiple roles in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the lead role in Annie (directed by Peter). She more than holds her own amongst this cast as Natalie, and will absolutely break your heart. Such an honest portrayal of a teenager dealing with more than a teenager should have to, and with a crystal clear singing voice. Similarly, Sayer Keeley performed in multiple shows at Stages Theatre Company and SPCPA, and brings all that experience to the role of Henry, Natalie's boyfriend. The two have a sweet and believable young chemistry. Kyle Weiler not only gives an electric performance as Gabe, but he also choreographed the show. It's not a big dance show, but there are some interesting and lovely movements to some of the songs that add to the storytelling, including a dynamic "Superboy and the Invisible Girl." Rounding out the cast is Riley McNutt in a solid performance as several of Diana's doctors, alternately empathetic and clinical, and occasionally a rock star.

photo by Dan Norman
Designer Paul Whitaker created both the lighting and set, which is perhaps why they work so
seamlessly together. The frame of a house is outlined in neon, which changes color with the emotion of the piece, specific sections lit up or darkened depending on where the action is happening. Similar to the original Broadway design, there are multiple staircases and ladders leading to the second story of the house. But there are no walls, it's fully open to the back and side walls of the theater, giving us a great view of the awesome five-piece band seated just behind the house, led by Artistic Director Jason Hansen on piano. This Tony-winning Kitt and Yorkey score is not easy, with intricate rhythms and overlapping parts, but this cast and band make it sound effortless. Completing the design are the costumes (design by Mathew J. LeFebvre), with the cast dressed in an endless parade of modern casual chic clothing.

I can't begin to say how much Peter Rothstein's work in the music-theater world has meant to me in the last 17 years, since I saw my first Theatre Latte Da production in 2006, Floyd Collins at the Loring Playhouse, four years before I started blogging. He's been my favorite ever since, with interesting choices of shows, and always thoughtful and clear vision. His departure (he will soon be taking over the Producing Artistic Director role at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida) is a huge loss to the local theater community. But he's left a great legacy in Theater Latte Da, which he co-founded with Denise Prosek 25 years ago, and which will no doubt continue to move the genre of musical theater forward, expanding what it can and should do. And I hear Florida is nice in the wintertime.

See Peter's last show, the brilliant Next to Normal, at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis now through July 16.

*Plot summary borrowed from what I've written about previous productions.