Review: “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy and adapted by Kevin McKeon. Produced by Book-It Repertory. Directed by Mary Machala. With Emily Grogan, Scott Ward Abernethy, Andrew DeRycke, Tracy Hyland, Evan Whitfield and David Anthony Lewis. Now through March 3, 2013 at The Center Theater/Seattle Center.
Review: “Next to Normal” with Music by Tom Kitt and Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Produced by Contemporary Classics and The Balagan. Musical Direction by R. J. Tancioco. Directed by Brandon Ivie. With Beth DeVries, Auston James, Keaton Whittaker, Kody Bringman, Ryan Hotes, and Ryan McCabe. Now through March 2, 2013 at the Erickson Theater.
Two currently running stage works, one an adaptation of a famous novel and the other a very contemporary musical couldn’t be more different thematically or stylistically but they both demonstrate why casting is so important to the artistic (and commercial) success of a theatrical endeavor. One miscast role can throw an entire production out of kilter. Both these productions suffer, to an extent, from that curse…neither show is derailed, but they both fall short of the desired effect.
We’ll start with the classy period piece, Book-It Repertory’s adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel, “Anna Karenina” the romantic tragedy about a noble Russian lady and her disastrous and adulterous love affair with the dashing Count Vronsky. It’s been adapted for stage, film and television many, many times…it’s apparently a timeless work. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a rollicking good tale about adultery, seduction, betrayal, abandonment and folk singing Russian peasants that all ends with a good old fashioned suicide via dismemberment by approaching train? It’s just like “Downton Abbey” but with an actual plot and fully realized characters!
Kevin McKeon has done an admirable job of winnowing down “Anna Karenina’s” myriad plots, love triangles and characters but it’s still a bit confusing for the Karenina novice; it might be wise to read a plot synopsis on Wikipedia before going. The writing is generally strong, most notably in regards to the dialogue but things do lag a bit about half way through the first act…the pacing gets a tad glacial at one point and the constant barrage of Russian names (why are Russian names so confusing and hard to keep track of?) does get a bit dreary. The second act perks up considerably, mainly due to the increased need to cram all the major plot elements in and the nature of the plot itself. I’m not entirely convinced that “Anna Karenina” and other densely packed historical novels are suited for the stage. While film can use montage to cram in plot elements, it’s far tougher to accomplish that on stage and while director Mary Machala tries to keep the plot rolling by cutting back and forth from different scenes, it’s a tough act to maintain and occasionally the audience finds itself left along the roadside.
Some strong performances from Andrew DeRycke as Anna’s alternately menacing/pathetic husband Karenin and especially David Anthony Lewis as Levin, the lead of the major “Anna” subplot, really help to hold up the show and maintain interest and dramatic appeal. But, to get back to our original point about casting, the production falters when it comes to its two leads. Successful stage/film casting, especially when it comes to romantic leads (and even more so when they are iconic romantic leads, like Anna and Vronsky) demands those leads be strongly charismatic and have a strong and vibrant chemistry between the two. Sadly, there is little chemistry between Emily Grogan’s Anna and Scott Ward Abernethy’s Vronsky…at best, they seem like bickering siblings instead of passionate lovers. Mr. Abernethy is an attractive actor but he also seems a bit too young to be a credible Vronsky; it seems like he wandered in from a CW teen potboiler version of Karenina called “The Sexy Sins of St. Pete’s”. He’s adorable but doesn’t have the correct physicality to be Vronsky.
As for the lovely Emily Grogan, she does a fine job as Anna but she’s a bit too…nice. Anna is a character blinded by love/passion and she’s not an evil person but she makes some poor decisions as well as being a victim of her gender and the era in which she lived, but she’s also a bit of a vixen and Ms Grogan isn’t physically or emotionally the vixen type. Her Anna seems more like the nice girl next door and she really needs to be the nice, horny girl next door…there needs to be some passionate fire burning beneath the cool surface because Anna needs to command the page or stage or screen she inhabits. Despite their tumbling beneath the sheets, you never feel much passion about her Anna or Mr. Abernethy’s Vronsky. It might have been wise to cast a volcano like Hannah Victoria Franklin as Anna and recast Mr. Lewis as Vronsky instead of Levin…that combination would have burnt down the Centerhouse theater.
Meanwhile, back up on Capitol Hill at the Erickson Theater, there’s a very different emotional dynamic going on in Contemporary Classics/Balagan’s co-production of the musical “Next to Normal”, the surprisingly successful Broadway musical with strong roots in Seattle. Workshopped at the Village Theater prior to its Broadway success, the musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey earned a lot of Tony love and kudos for its original take on an unlikely subject. “Next to Normal” is about a yuppie housewife and mother suffering from severe manic depression and the toll that takes on her husband and children. It’s rock infused score, tiny cast of six actors and unusual theme make it unique in the canon of great American musicals and while “N2N” isn’t obviously to everyone’s taste, it’s still a powerful piece of musical theater with some lovely music and a powerful book.
It’s also a show that requires musical actors who can act these very demanding dramatic roles. While the demands of musical theater vary greatly in the dramatic sense, few other shows require actors capable of dealing with themes of depression, suicide and electroshock therapy. Billy Bigelow has a tough emotional arc in “Carousel” but it doesn’t quite compare to the journeys taken in “N2N”! It’s both vocally and dramatically challenging and it’s not surprising to learn that the original lead actress, Tony winner Alice Ripley famously “stripped” her voice playing the role on the national tour. It’s a tough, tough role and while the beautiful Beth DeVries has a clear, strong musical theater voice (I could barely understand any of the lyrics sung by Alice Ripley when the show played the 5th Avenue last year) and every lyric and note was crystal clear, the actress is far too lovely, maintained and, well, NORMAL to play a character suffering from severe mental anguish. She has perfectly colored and cut hair and a perfect pedicure! You never feel that Ms DeVries’ Diana Goodman is in much pain…it’s more like “The Music Man’s” Marian the Librarian is having an off day. And, it’s not just an “appearance” issue…you never get any sense dramatically that there’s much of anything wrong with the character. Early in the musical, there’s a moment where Diana clearly demonstrates that something is seriously wrong with her but nothing in the performance leading up to that moment helps indicate her illness. It’s just a case of, “Wow! Look at the nice lady make sandwiches on the floor! I guess she’s loco!” And, I don’t want it to appear I’m attacking Ms DeVries; it’s clearly the case of a good actress improperly cast in the wrong role. The fault belongs to the production and not the performer.
The other actors are largely better cast with Auston James a major highlight as Diana’s much put upon but also very co-dependent husband Dan. It’s a strong and impassioned performance of a role that’s equally as daunting as the role of Diana. Keaton Whittacker also impresses as the daughter Natalie and Ryan McCabe is fine in the dual roles of doctors who care for Diana, though personally there needed to be a greater change in make-up/costuming to differentiate between his two characters. Kody Bringman plays the mysterious and “we’re not allowed to spoil anything about his character/plot device” son Gabe; it’s a tough role to pull off and needs to be very carefully played with great subtlety but Mr. Bringman errs on the side of petulance when the role requires sympathy. But, a chief highlight of the cast is young Ryan Hotes as Natalie’s sweet boyfriend Henry. Mr. Hotes gives a quietly sympathetic and earnestly convincing performance; he’s the most believable character on stage at the Erickson and we want to see more of what he has to offer.
The tech/design work on “N2N” is fine…in fact, stronger than most recent Balagan productions with excellent lighting from Robert J. Aguilar and musical direction by R. J. Tancioco. Recent musical productions at the Erickson have suffered from some muddy sound, but the well balanced orchestra seldom overwhelms the singing. The set, a co-design from Mr. Aguilar and costume designer Pete Rush, is fine and serviceable and obviously not nearly as elaborate as the expensive and grand multi-level set featured on Broadway and the tour. As usual, Mr. Rush has provided expertly tailored (all his pants and slacks break PERFECTLY!) and nuanced contemporary clothing highly suitable to the characters though we questioned the sluttiness of Natalie’s Act II “wild child/let’s go clubbin’!” outfit and whether Diana would always be so immaculately attired. But, it went well with her perfect hair style and perfect pedicure…
Kudos to Contemporary Classics and Balagan for staging this daunting musical. It’s gorgeous score and haunting themes are well evident in this production and it has many assets. But, it’s also just a little bit too perfect and too close to normal.