Two new shows with lots of music in them opened this weekend, one at Artists Rep and the other at Center Stage, and each offered an intimate experience for the audience, a close encounter with fine voices, most notably those of Susannah Mars and Chavez Ravine. The music was entirely different — Mars sings a rock musical and Ravine dives into some great American roots music — but it was used to good dramatic purpose.
Let's jump right in.
Next to Normal, Artists Repertory Theatre: Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt's musical arrives in town with Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes in hand, a combination that indicates it isn't a standard-issue fare. (Before Next to Normal won in 2009, the most recent Pulitzer winner was Rent (1996).) And, right, how often do you run across clinical depression and attempted suicide as the subject of a musical?
But really, the subject is Diana, and she's funny, engaging, angry, worried and yes, anxious and depressed and under a doctor's care. Her qualities come out in the songs, but they require more than a good singer to develop them, and ART's production has the fabulous Susannah Mars, who has won five Drammy Awards to date, to explore the songs (which are both rock-inflected and Broadway-like) and give Diana the obsessive energy and empty core the character requires.
Diana is a mom and a wife, and her illness generates a cascade of effects on family. Her husband Dan (William Wadhams) is stalwart in his support, but his decisions are part of the problem. And daughter Natalie (Meghan McCandless) has gotten used to being ignored, even though she doesn't deserve it and has come to mimic the physical coldness that her mother has with her — at least until potential boyfriend Henry (Todd Tschida) shows up.
Next to Normal starts as a mystery — why is Diana the way she is? But that is revealed early in the show, and then her treatment and the course of her illness take over. Of course drugs are involved, then talking therapy and finally electric shock. Yorkey and Kitt don't indict the medical profession exactly — Diana's second doctor (both doctors are well-played by Jared Q. Miller) is even pretty sympathetic — but the idea that drugs can fix everything is under fire.
The best part of Next to Normal, though, is its success in demonstrating just how resourceful and cunning an enemy mental illness itself is. It's even embodied in the play, which we won't talk about for spoiler reasons, though we will say that John Debkowski is involved as the actor.
The production itself is well-sung by the cast, led by Mars, who is a truly great singer. All the male voices head toward falsetto, which is dangerous territory, but they manage just fine and sometimes much better than that, and McCandless's duets with Mars show her vocal ability. Early in the show I was worried that the onstage band, led by Eric Little, was going to be too loud, even though the voices were miked, but a balance was found, and the closing song blended voice and band perfectly: kudos to music director Rick Lewis and director Jon Kretzu.
Black Pearl Sings!, Portland Center Stage: An unmediated mental/emotional trauma is at the center of Next to Normal. Frank Higgins' Black Pearl Sings! shows that one of our cultural resources for dealing with such things is song, especially the songs of African Americans, who have endured unconscionable and systematic traumatizing since the beginning of their time on the continent.
The play, which contains lots of great old blues, gospel and folk songs, is based on real life: The recordings of Huddie Ledbetter, Lead Belly, by white musicologist John Lomax, who found Lead Belly in prison in Louisiana, recorded his songs and helped him get parole in 1934. The two formed a partnership, with Lead Belly performing for Lomax's lectures, but broke up, and Lead Belly continued as a performer until dying from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1949. Actually, his story is way more complicated than that, but that’s the part that Higgins dramatized.
Higgins made one big change. He replaced Ledbetter and Lomax with two women characters, Pearl (Chavez Ravine) and Susannah (Lena Kaminsky). Pearl's in prison and Susannah's doing research of folk songs, hoping to get a gig at Harvard for her troubles. But each is more deeply motivated than that, though it takes time — and the building of trust — for them to reach an understanding of sorts.
That story is interesting, but Ravine singing Pearl's folk songs in Black Pearl Sings! is a central delight, whether it's an older version of a familiar song ("Ride Sally Ride," "Down on Me," "This Little Light of Mine," "Do Lord") or a song you've never heard before. She has an earthy, rich voice, perfect for these songs, sensual and spiritual by turns. And she uses them to make her point in her verbal jousts with Susannah. Kaminsky sings, too, Irish-originated folk songs from Appalachia, mostly, which she sings plainly but to good effect.
Higgins' play has funny bits (Pearl is from Hilton Head, for example, and Susannah is competing for songs with Zora Neale Hurston), and its story of reconciliation is timely, but I left with Ravine's voice and folk songs in my head.