(Review contributed by Charles LaBorde)

For the first time in my almost 50 years of theatre going in the greater Charlotte area, I ventured across the line to Fort Mill Community Playhouse to see their new production of the extremely challenging Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical, “Next to Normal.”  It was a trip well worth making to see this almost flawless production.

If you aren’t familiar with this show, it is a through-sung play (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt) about the stresses and strains put on a family with one member suffering from bi-polar disorder.  Sounds like fun, huh?  Well, actually it is, despite the heavy subject matter. 

The show is in the same tragic-comic musical niche as “Fun Home,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “Falsettos,” but it takes the audience on a much more challenging journey than any of those other fine plays.  It is rather more of a song-cycle, with about 40 rock-inspired songs linked together by snatches of dialogue and a fair amount of recitative (you know, like in opera, when the performers sing the dialogue between arias).  I hesitate to say much about the plot, since one of the joys of this show is how it gradually reveals its secrets as the play goes along.

But what of this particular incarnation?  I’ve seen the show at least three times before, and this community theatre production is as good as it gets.  The strong cast is headlined by Amy McKay as the bi-polar mom.  Singing beautifully and acting her whatever off, McKay turns in a performance that is comic, frantic, and heartbreaking.  Like the entire cast (Peter Liuzzo, Paul Reeves Leopard, Ally Teeples, Tristan Robinson, and Matt Howie), her vocals are mirrored by the depth of the acting.  It has been a long time since I have seen a show with such uniformly talented singer-actors as this one.

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Of course such excellence does not come by accident.  The talents of director Scott Albert and musical director Vicki Clayton Harvell are on full display.  Those of you unfamiliar with the stage in Fort Mill might be surprised to see how tiny it is.  Albert makes complete use of that postage-stamp stage and the aisles leading up to it.  He utilizes the entire space so effectively that the production swirls around the audience.

Not to be overlooked are the precision changes of the limited set pieces and the strong musical instrumentation by the three-piece orchestra (guitar, keyboards, and an unseen percussionist).  Set, costumes, and lighting are minimal and functional, as they should be, to keep the focus on the small acting ensemble.

I’ve also got to praise the joys of hearing strong singers performing without body microphones.  We actually get to hear their unamplified voices.  That is such a rarity that it seemed almost magical to me.  The best benefit of this decision is that it forces the actors to sing full-out, which adds weight and passion to their acting.  Great decision by the directors.

I cannot stress how effectively the small space is utilized.  In my years of playgoing, some of the best shows I have seen have been in constricted spaces that require honesty from the performers and ingenuity from the directors—shows like the Off-Broadway productions of “The Fantasticks,” “Forever Plaid,” and “Falsettoland.”  This production at Fort Mill Community Playhouse will stay in my memory beside them.

Now stop reading this and get a ticket.  You will be greatly rewarded.

Performances: August 11 – August 27, Evening Performances @ 7:30 pm and Matinees @ 3 pm

Reserve tickets:  www.fortmillplayhouse.org or Call 803-548-8102

Greg "Ricky Bobby" Rickabaugh has lived in the Fort Mill and York County community since 2006. He has covered the area while a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and a freelance writer for The Fort Mill...

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