Off Broadway Reviews
at The New York Musical Festival
Serious musicals, whether at the New York Musical Festival or anywhere else, should be respected and treasured whenever they appear. Newton's Cradle definitely qualifies as serious. It explores the complicated existence of the Alaskan Newton family, in which the 30-year-old eldest son, Evan (Heath Saunders, who also wrote the music and lyrics), is on the autism spectrum, and it affects everyone, from Evan's girlfriend Charlie (Rachel Kara Perez) to his brother Michael (Trent Saunders) and his girlfriend Chelsea (Rose Hemingway) to the boys' parents Nate and Audrey (David DeWitt and Andrea Jones-Sojola). But if the motives of the show and the production (directed by Tony-winning actress Victoria Clark) are pure and praiseworthy, we nonetheless must ask: Is this an effective musical?
For me: no. There's tons of singing, to be sure, of a lot of heavy quasi-Sondheim dialogue songs that are occasionally lightened up (there are two numbers about croquet, Evan's favorite game), but Newton's Cradle itself struggles to find good reasons to sing. The writers (the book and additional lyrics are by Kim Saunders) haven't settled on a consistent method of musicalizing Evan's struggle, so you're never really able to crawl into his head the way you ought to be able to do with a main character. But no one else comes off much better. The relationship between Evan and Michael is central, but not defined in music; Chelsea is stunningly crucial to the action but has no solo; Charlie's inner turmoil manifests itself in a comedic Act I monologue, but nowhere else. Dad and Mom are the biggest ciphers of all for reasons that eventually become clear, but they aren't dramatically satisfying.
As a result, I kept longing for the Newton's Cradle characters to break out in speech and get to the point quicker. (Given how little happens, its two-hour running time is far too long.) As with Next to Normal (which premiered at NYMF in 2005 as Feeling Electric), this is a musical that seems more about a medical message ("autism sufferers are real people too" versus "clinical depressives are real people too") than telling a story or eliciting feelings through musical and lyrical necessity, and apparently considers that a sufficient replacement for punch and panache. Although I cared about Evan's plight intellectually, not once did I feel a thing for him. It doesn't help, of course, that watching a depiction of autismwith sharply repeated phrases, controlled-manic gestures, and one-level speech patternsis seldom itself pleasant. But when someone can (and should) sing but too often doesn't, you notice the weaknesses more.
Clark's staging is stark and utilitarian but correct for the material, and all of the performances hit their necessary marks. The best developed are Trent's aggressively charming Michael (he and Heath are real-life brothers, which adds a spicy note to the proceedings), Perez's headstrong Charlie, and especially Jones-Sojola's sumptuously sung Audrey (her haunting lullaby to Evan is the sole moment of song that feels right). And the string-heavy four-man band, under the music direction of Jesse Kissel makes all of the musical's songs sound good.
But if you can't articulate why any of them exist, there's a problem, and this stymied me time and time again during Newton's Cradle. There's unquestionably much of worth here, but none of it adds up to the cathartic experience the last song, the surging but strained-metaphor "Blackbird," pretends to present. And if a piece like this isn't transformative, it ends up not being much of anything. Remember: Plays can be serious, too.