The Egyptian Theater’s “Next to Normal” in Park City is Insanely Marvelous

By Steven Williams

Next to Normal, presented by Ziegfeld Theater Company in Park City, is a rock style musical that tells the story of a family rocked by tragedy, loss, illness, drug abuse, and suicide. A specific emphasis on the loss of a child and the fight with mental illness is the central theme around Next to Normal. With so many themes at work and such heavy topics, Next to Normal excels at being clear, easy to follow, and honest. Ziegfeld Theater Company knocked this one out of the park in every aspect of impactful theater.

Rick Rea (Director) led this cast and crew to a real work of art. Rea has been instrumental in several notable works presented here in Utah. His talent and knowledge are front and center in this presentation of Next to Normal.

The set is a stroke of genius. Caleb Parry and Rea (Set Design) welcome us into a home that is a 3D blueprint, with writing on the walls indicating the necessary dimensions and intended layout. This is a minimalist set design that evokes a complete atmosphere for the narrative. This decision works for me on so many levels. These visuals echo the questions that are raised throughout the production. How did what we are seeing come from the original plans and intentions? Are there specific dimensions and plans behind where we are now? What makes a building a home? Where are things supposed to be?

Alicia Kondrick (Costume Design) enhances the passing of time and circumstance with a modern wardrobe that allows the characters to look like real people while also hinting at the changes that are taking place within them. We see the characters appearances slowly getting darker while attempting to look normal. This type of attention to detail and meticulous planning helps me to understand why it takes my wife multiple attempts in getting dressed before we can eventually leave the house.

Kyle A. Lawrence (Props Design) includes a few superman Easter eggs while providing the essential items to allow us to believe that we are watching something real happen. Not an overwhelmingly prop heavy production, so a perfect marriage to the minimal set.

The sound and lighting designs by Eliza Haynie, Hyrum Summerhays and Peter Mayhew provide clear dialogue, a powerful live music environment and color tones to amplify the emotions being displayed on stage. These elements create a very professional look and feel that elevate the show to such a professional level that the tickets feel underpriced. The Band is incredible, their timing is flawless. I witnessed Jonathan McDonald (Conductor and Piano), Christine Warren (Violin), Yian Chi (Cello), Jacob Lambros (Guitar), Ivy Augusta Smith (Bass) and Justin Lord (Drums) earn a spontaneous applause when they returned to the stage after intermission, well deserved.

The following review on the cast will be real and honest. It’s only fair to tell the truth and name names. I can honestly say that this cast has no weak link. No performances were phoned in. I’m easy to pull out of the theater experience by anything that reminds me that I’m watching a performance and not real life. It’s like Somewhere in Time for me, one reminder of what time I’m really in and the magic is gone. But the ENTIRE cast became and stayed the characters, truly talented group. Let’s get specific.

Shawnee Kennington (Diana) portrays a mother, wife, and woman who has undergone extraordinary loss and struggles with illness throughout her life. Kennington made me feel that the struggle is real, and that the issues of mental illness are very complicated and deserve a deeper focus. Kennington shows how truly impossible it is to be everything to everyone while holding yourself together. Her time on stage is not only plot driving but also heartbreaking.  Kennington’s vocals are both powerful and able to express a great amount of vulnerability.

Jake T. Holt (Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden) reveals that the science of medicine is more of a trial and error system. His attempts to treat or free Diana from her burdens, shed an uncomfortable light on the lack of knowledge and precision that we have in the field of mental illnesses. Holt brings very needed levity to several tough scenes via his rock star persona and his authentic bedside manner. His vocal ability is solid and made me wish that he had additional songs.

Tanner Horan (Gabe) was probably born to play  the part of Diana’s lost son. Horan is both a delightful teenager and a twisted evil curse that has us completely torn between wanting him gone and wanting him back. His musical number “I’m Alive” is both catchy and haunting. Horan’s voice is a surprising strength in several of the musical numbers that he is featured in, including “I am the One”, “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl” and “There’s a World”. Horan’s strong vocal presence is required to drive home the duality of his character and he delivers.

Craig Williams (Dan) Diana’s husband is the man that attempts to keep all the plates spinning. His struggle is so similar to Diana’s in that his world is slipping away from him despite his best efforts. Williams shows us how alone we can be while trying to keep a family together. His desperation and frustration in palatable, especially in “Who’s Crazy”.

Cooper Lavallee (Henry) is the loveable pothead that we don’t want our daughters to date until we really get to know how good he is to her. Lavallee is the outsider, whose journey into the family is both a welcome bit of sanity and a surprising parallel. His ability to portray integrity with a touch of innocence is the stuff great leading protagonists are made of.

Hailee Olenberger (Natalie) is the teenage daughter that is perfect until you let her slip through the cracks through neglect. Olenberger is a true double-barreled shotgun when it comes to performance and vocals. Her attention to detail is amazing, I noticed that when her character played the piano, I could have sworn that her fingers were actually playing the notes, even though there was a band on stage and her prop was an air piano. Olenberger’s “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl” was the musical number that I still can’t get out of my head, and her flawless execution of it is certainly the reason why.

What this show truly deserves is a packed audience every  showtime. It is a powerful story with an insanely talented cast and crew. This show is for adult audiences, there is adult language that adds to the show in a natural and realistic way. The message and questions that Next to Normal raises are relevant and completely worth taking in.

The Ziegfeld Theater presents Next to Normal, by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt             The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main Street, Park City, Utah 84060                                 Through September 16th Thursdays through Sundays 8:00 PM                                 Tickets: Thursday $19/$23/$29    Friday-Sunday $23/$29/$35                                     Contact: 435-649-9371

The Ziegfeld Theater Facebook Page                                                                               The Egyptian Theater Facebook Page                                                                           Next to Normal Facebook Event

Laugh and Cry Your Way Through “Broadway Bound” at the Egyptian in Park City

By Susannah Whitman

You don’t have to head to New York to see Broadway Bound—you just need to make the short drive to the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, where the Neil Simon Festival is putting on a brilliant production. The Neil Simon Festival happens annually in Cedar City, but luckily for us here in northern Utah, they’re doing a short run of one of their productions at the Egyptian.

Broadway Bound is the third and final chapter in the “Eugene Trilogy,” Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical series of plays. But you don’t need to have seen Brighton Beach Memoirs or Biloxi Blues to appreciate Broadway Bound. It stands on its own two feet. Adult brothers Eugene (Trevor Messenger) and Stan (Christopher Whiteside) live at home with their no-nonsense mother Kate (Kirsten Sham), their mostly absent father Jack (Peter Sham), and their curmudgeonly grandfather Ben (Richard Bugg.) Kate’s sister Blanche (Alyson King), now married to a rich garment district tycoon, makes an occasional visit out to the old family home. Eugene and Stan hate their day jobs and have dreams of being a comedy writing team, so when they get a chance to “audition” their work at a CBS radio show, they throw themselves into the task. But while Eugene and Stan’s comedy careers are taking off, their family is falling apart around them. It’s a self-aware little play—Eugene often turns and addresses the audience directly, commenting on what’s happening onstage. The script has all of the zippy dialogue you’d expect from a Neil Simon play, which helps to soften some of the heartbreak of the story, creating a poignant and moving show.

Bugg is a delightful, elderly grump as Grandpa Ben, and his timing is impeccable in both humorous and serious moments. Neil Simon’s work demands a sort of rhythmic dance through the dialogue, and Bugg hit all the right notes. King is an elegant Blanche, who has learned to hide her blue collar ways under white collar (or mink collar, as the case may be) clothes. Her refinement slowly crumbles away in her scenes with Bugg, as she becomes more vulnerable and angry. Peter Sham is a deeply sympathetic Jack, who has spent his entire life making sacrifices for a family and a life that have not fulfilled him. Peter Sham’s performance is moving and honest, especially in his moments of hurt and anger. Whiteside is wonderful as the slightly neurotic Stan, and his quirks and worries endeared him to us as the audience.

Truly stand out performances come from Messenger and Kirsten Sham. Messenger is charismatic, funny, and confident as the narrator Eugene. He truly connects with both his fellow actors and the audience. He makes strong and effective choices, and while he’s a strong comedic actor, his work is deeply moving in his more serious scenes. Kirsten Sham’s rough, matter-of-fact manner as the matriarch of the Jerome household is a formidable force. As the play goes on, we slowly see her become more and more vulnerable, which makes her tough exterior all the more dimensional. The scene in the second act, in which she tells the story of dancing at the Primrose is the equivalent of a musical theatre showstopper. Kirsten Sham truly shone in those moments.

The technical elements of the show are simple. The set designed by Randy Lawrence Seely had nice levels, and its warm colors create the sense of a working class home. It’s not too shabby, but it’s clear that everything in the rooms had to be worked for. Lighting design by Rebekah Bugg created effective shifts for when Eugene broke the 4th wall. Costumes by Jen Bach were perfect for the time period, and Kate’s elegant dress in Act II is so good that it should have its own bio.

When you arrive at the Egyptian, plan to spend a few minutes (and a few dollars) on parking. There’s a lot to see and do in Park City, and historic downtown is usually pretty busy, so plan ahead. This show only has a very short run in this neck of the woods, so hurry and catch this stunning production before it closes. I’m notoriously stingy about giving standing ovations, but I leapt to my feet at the end of this show.

The Neil Simon Festival presents Broadway Bound by Neil Simon                               Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main Street, Park City UT 84060                                                 August 18 – 20    8:00 PM                                                               TICKETS: Wednesday & Thursday $15 House / $19 Front-of-House / $25 Cabaret
Friday – Sunday: $19 House /  $23 Front-of-House / $29 Cabaret                               Contact: 435.649.9371   boxoffice@parkcityshows.com