Two Musicals to be Grateful For

by David A. Rosenberg

Forget leggy chorus girls. Neither “Next to Normal” at Music Theater of Connecticut nor “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at Hartford Stage is your usual musical comedy. But both are worth a theatergoer’s attention.


Powerful and profound, the tuneful, rock-infused “Next to Normal” fully deserved its 2010 Pulitzer Prize. At MTC, under Kevin Connors’ direction, the Tom Kitt (music) / Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) piece is being given a production that moves and mesmerizes. Dealing with a dysfunctional family, electroshock therapy, murder, suicide and abandonment, it stirs undeniable emotions yet is more inspirational than depressing.


Suburban parents Diana and Dan struggle with their marriage and their teen-age kids, Natalie and Gabe. Diana is bipolar; Dan is half-crazed with worry; neglected Natalie has an adoring, druggie boyfriend named Henry, while Gabe wanders about in some strange haze.


These are people on the edge of destruction, fueled by Diana’s inability to cope with her past. The word “light,” which opens and closes the show, takes on meanings both practical and metaphoric, summing up the family’s yearnings. (“Let there be light/We’ve been living in the dark for far too long.”)


Tragedy and ensuing illness have taken their toll, estranging mother and daughter, father and son. Ghosts cannot be expunged easily; at its heart, this is a work about the hold the dead have on the living.


It’s the haunting presence of the mysterious Gabe that interferes with recovery. As portrayed by Logan Hart, Gabe is both charming and sinister. “I am flame and I am fire,” he sings, “I am destruction, decay and desire. I’ll hurt you.”


Yet it’s Diana whose hurts are at stake and Juliet Lambert Pratt runs the scales, sane and psychotic, poignant and fiery, sympathetic and sardonic, in a superb performance made more shocking by MTC’s intimate space.


Tommy Foster plays two no-nonsense doctors with empathy and detachment. As Dan, Will Erat gives a master class in portraying a man so torn between his intellect and emotions that he threatens to self-destruct. It’s a beautiful performance. Also in the cast are Elissa DeMaria as Natalie and Jacob Heimer as Henry.


Destruction of a quite different source permeates the world premiere of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” It’s taken from a 1907 novel, “Israel Rank” by Roy Horniman (unacknowledged in the program), the same source as the great British movie, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”


For all its Edwardian charm, it does not quite come up to the comic level of that film. Yet it’s an entertaining work, with a giddy libretto by Robert L. Freedman, sprightly music by Steven Lutvak, and clever lyrics by both. It’s Gilbert and Sullivan (”He’s missing a leg/But a very good egg.”) crossed with Oscar Wilde (“When I think of the indignities you’ve suffered, it must have inspired a terrible resentment of the upper classes”).


Class distinctions lead to the nefarious plans of one Monty Navarro, the poor relation of the snooty D’Ysquith family. (Sings one clan member, “I don’t understand the poor/What’s all the suffering for?”) Launching all-out war against his rich relatives, Navarro bumps them off one by one in order to push ahead in the line of succession. (The manner of their bumping off shall remain unspoken, so as not to spoil surprises.)


Adding complications, Navarro has two women on the string, flirtatious Sibella and lovely cousin Phoebe. The scene in which he tries to ensure that one does not discover the other is the evening’s richest.


As in “Kind Hearts,” all members of the murdered family, male and female, are portrayed by one actor. In the film it was Alec Guinness; now it’s Connecticut-born Jefferson Mays, about as versatile an actor as any around. Whether ritzy or ditsy, Mays is hilarious in a performance of high and low comedy. Lisa O’Hare and Chilina Kennedy are lively rivals, while Ken Barnett is striking as Monty.


The production is first-rate, from the designs to the orchestrations. Darko Tresnjak, a director who consistently values style, guides the proceedings with an antic hand.


These productions sure beat revivals of more familiar works. We are grateful.


In The Hour, Thurs., Oct. 25, 2012


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