Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Next to Normal,
The Assassination of Jesse James and
Sherlock Holmes and the Crucifer of Blood

Kristine Fraelich
Photo by Mark Garvin
When Next to Normal opened on Broadway in 2009, it was hailed as a high-voltage, high-energy, high-volume rock musical. It set out to dazzle its audience, and it did so—but sometimes with a brute force that made it easy to admire but hard to love. What makes the Arden's new production so interesting is that it doesn't pummel you with its power. The music isn't bombastic; the drums are muffled and the guitar is turned down, giving the cellos and violins (in Michael Starobin's original Broadway orchestrations) more prominence. Leading lady Kristine Fraelich may lack original star Alice Ripley's vocal firepower, but her rich, expressive alto fits her character perfectly. And while director Terrence J. Nolen's production has its share of impressive stagecraft—Jorge Cousineau's projections are often stunning—it's the characters and their story that make Next to Normal worth seeing.

Next to Normal's central character, Diana, suffers from bipolar disorder—she's a model housewife one moment, a babbling, hallucinating mess the next. Her ineffectual husband can't handle her; their teenage daughter Natalie is too easily pliable, tough on the outside but inwardly fragile; and their son Gabe, while comforting and supporting toward Diana, isn't all that he seems at first. A doctor prescribes medication, which blunts Diana's highs and lows; in one of the show's most affecting moments, she sings "I miss the mountains/I miss my life." Eventually Diana turns to electroshock therapy and, while the doctor warns of side effects, the results aren't what anyone in the family expects.

Sounds depressing, doesn't it? Indeed, the biggest problem with Next to Normal is that it can get unrelentingly bleak at times. While there are plenty of funny moments, only Natalie's sincere boyfriend Henry (the charming Michael Doherty) offers any consistent lightness. But Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics are full of insightful observations, sketching out complex characters with fine detail. You'll feel their pain, but you'll feel you know them too. Tom Kitt's exhilarating music includes everything from modern rock to gentle waltzes, yet feels unified.

Nolen's direction gives the show unity, too. The characters bond through their anguish via small gestures; the actors seem like a family that's been through a lot together and has little they need to express verbally. Fraelich's Diana holds your attention with delicate strength. But it's Rachel Camp's Natalie who gives the most memorable performance; she projects a forcefulness and vulnerability that give Natalie a lot of warmth. By contrast, Robert Hager's Gabe is somewhat underpowered. And James Barry's performance as husband Dan is oddly unsettling; with his worried expression, large eyes and seemingly unblinking stare, he can make one wonder who's supposed to be the crazy one. Brian Hissong gives good support as a doctor whose personality changes depending on Diana's perceptions.

Alison Roberts' layered costumes for Diana and Henry add to the characters' charm. And Jorge Cousineau's striking video projections, full of clinical parallel lines that seem to trap Diana one moment and offer her an endless vista in the next, clarify and strengthen the story without distracting from it. It's a great example of what Nolen's excellent production of this stirring musical does best.

Next to Normal runs through November 4, 2012, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at or in person at the box office.

Kate Brennan, Melanie Julian, Maria Konstantinidis, Colleen Hughes
Amanda Schoonover

At first, The Assassination of Jesse James seems like an odd experiment. Telling the story of the notorious James Gang with an all-female cast is an audacious move—but it takes a while to settle in. There is nervous laughter from the audience at first as women spin six-shooters and talk tough about robbing banks. But soon the laughs ebb and the awkwardness fades, and we see that the gender switch was a solid decision, allowing writer/director Brenna Geffers to humanize these hoodlums, making them seem less clich├ęd. Instead of seeing these outlaws through Hollywood's macho prism, we see them as they really were.

Or do we? Geffers constructed her script by cobbling together touring vaudeville scripts, dime novels, newspaper accounts, and even a Woody Guthrie song. Some of these accounts depict James as a vicious killer, while others paint him as a noble warrior, or a patron of the working man fighting against big business, or a disenfranchised Confederate soldier victimized by the victorious North, or a political combatant battling President Grant and the Republican Party. It's a fascinating examination not just of James' life but of the way his legend grew, presented as a vaudeville pastiche but without any creakiness. (Only the transition to the intermission at the end of act one is handled clumsily.) James' story is told in a clear, linear way, with the five actors slipping in and out of characters with ease. And while they all dress like men (in Natalia de la Torre's authentic-seeming costumes), the performers make no effort to disguise who they are. Melanie Julian, with her disheveled hair and dirty cheeks, is a credible Jesse James, and Colleen Hughes, as Jesse's killer, Robert Ford, makes a transition from lovelorn, rapturous devotion to dead-eyed guilt. It's all performed in a room where Western memorabilia covers the walls and straw covers the floor (so watch where you put your bags).

A few words of warning: instead of using the stairway to reach the stage on the third floor of the century-old Plays & Players Theater, patrons are being directed to enter via a fire escape that feels pretty precarious. And, possibly to avoid complaints about noise, the firing of guns is depicted not by sound but by light—strobe light, which was so harsh that I had to cover my eyes.

The Assassination of Jesse James runs through October 28, 2012, and is presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, third floor, Philadelphia. Ticket prices are $25 - $50 and are available by calling 267-273-1414 or online at

Chance Dean, Maryruth Stine and Dave Polgar
Hedgerow Theatre is presenting Sherlock Holmes and the Crucifer of Blood, playwright Paul Giovanni's loose adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Sign of Four." (The play is better known as simply The Crucifer of Blood; it was a Broadway hit under that title in the late 1970s.) Alas, it's too clunky to be fully satisfying. Giovanni pads out the mystery with a few too many twists which make the story hard to follow. He spotlights some unfortunate vestiges of 19th century English exotic melodrama, including a pygmy and an opium-peddling "Chinaman." He also turns the hard-working Inspector Lestrade, a Conan Doyle creation who's missing from the source novel, into a bumbling buffoon (an unfortunate development, although actor Jeffrey Lanigan makes the most of Lestrade's laugh lines). And instead of allowing the audience to be dazzled by Holmes' genius, Giovanni gives us a "talking killer" who reveals the solution to Dr. Watson (the sturdy Dave Polgar).

Director Jared Reed's production is a little too slow and stuffy for its own good, and the English accents are all over the place. But there are some nice touches, notably Chance Dean's impetuous and temperamental take on Holmes, and Maryruth Stine's focused performance as Holmes' client.

Sherlock Holmes and the Crucifer of Blood runs through November 25, 2012, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices are $25 to $32, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at or in person at the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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