Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review: Inside the Mind

By Michael Block 

The fascination of the inner workings of the mind has been a source of inspiration in the arts. How does the mind work? And how does a memory that is just dots and not a straight-line work? In Newton's Cradle, a young man's mind is explored theatrically like nothing before. Aside from Next to Normal maybe.
Written by mother and son writing team Kim and Heath Saunders, Newton's Cradle is a delicate family musical. Evan Newton is the centerpiece of the story. We watch his interactions with those he's closest to over the course of his life. Evan is on the autism spectrum. This is a story about how it affects each individual. It's easy to find parallels to the magnificent Next to Normal, a NYMF alum. And that's not a bad thing at all. This is a wondrously complex story. The way things unravel is stunning. It’s intricate and precise. And special. The story is something unique and something compulsory in contemporary musical theater. Trying to talk about Kim Saunders’ book without ruining the splendor of the musical is difficult. Newton’s Cradle is one of those creations that being present and in the moment fulfills the experience. What book writer Kim Saunders has offered is chockfull of immeasurable potential. While the festival setting may have held back the production’s full possibility, the approach and vision could have gone so much further. Director Victoria Clark did a fine job with the material. When it worked, it worked. Clark seemed to approach the piece in a classical musical style yet this piece begs to be more stylized. And when it does reach the stylized portions, boy will it be special. It’s within those moments that bring out the grandeur of Newton’s Cradle. It’s unclear how the varying plotlines work in time. How Clark approached the first act, it’s easy to desire defining Evan and his interactions. But once it’s revealed in Act II, it all makes sense. Had Clark stylized it a bit more, you wouldn’t be asking yourself how they play into one another for as long as you did. As crazy as it sounds, simply starting the show with Evan saying “Can I ask you a question?” may propel the structure in the proper style. Even though the energy was high, the pacing was a bit slow. Again, amping the tempo up and seeing more of the intertwining plotlines on stage can be exciting. Really dive inside Evan’s mind. When it comes to Heath Saunders’ score, he infuses some really strong musical theater into the show. It is yet another comparison to Next to Normal. But when Evan drives the music, it goes into another world and it was perfect. The digitized portion of the score comes through Evan's mind and it can certainly go further. It is Evan’s story after all. And it’s a sound that isn’t often found in the current state of contemporary musical theater. Whether it was orchestrator James Dobinson not offering more of the electronic sound into the music, the next iteration needs it. It will help set the musical apart.
photo by Michael Kushner
Newton’s Cradle was a family affair. Beyond mother and son as the writers, brothers got to share the stage. Heath Saunders took on the role of Evan opposite his brother Trent Saunders as Michael. To say that there wasn’t any chemistry between the pair would be wrong. They were a dynamic duo. Balanced to say the least. What’s interesting about Heath and Trent is how similar yet vastly different they are on stage. And it’s proven through the writing, done by their mom. Heath as Evan was precisely calculated. It never veered toward stagey. Trent’s Michael was a little looser. If you’re looking for a well-rounded performance, look no further than Rose Hemingway. Playing Michael’s girlfriend Chelsea, Hemingway was equal parts sweet and spirited. As lovely as Andrea Jones-Sojola’s voice is, it was not part of this musical world. In the book scenes, she did a splendid job. But the more classical tone and style to her voice pulled away the overall sound.
Though the style may not have been perfectly on point, where Victoria Clark found great success was through her focus on family and relationships. The bonds are present in Kim Saunders’ book but Clark was able to lift them in a manner that made them raw. The barebones approach fell into Luke Hegel Cantarella’s scenic design. The furniture was placed in a way that gave an Alaskan cottage shape. Despite being a bit cumbersome, if this world we live in is through Evan’s vantage, putting any piece on an angle felt wrong. And there were two pieces that did so. It’s a little thing but in the big picture, it stands out.
If you read this thinking it’s a “bad” review, it’s not. The criticism comes from a place of respect and seeing the exponential potential this musical has. Could it afford some trimming to make it a single act musical? Yes. Could Heath and Kim Saunders explore a title change? It wouldn’t be a bad idea. Even Next to Normal used to have a different name. Feeling Electric anyone? Newton’s Cradle was one of those shows that you knew from early on that you’d be tracking the production’s journey. Where will it go from here? Who knows? But there is a bright future.