Presented by The New York Musical Festival, this captivating, disarming piece is worthy of and ready for a full production. Containing aspects of Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, The Curious Incident of The Dog In the Night-Time, and its own compassionate view, it palpably dramatizes not only the evolution of a boy with neurodevelopment disorders, changing temperament, and perception, but also, as its book writer says, “when labels help in terms of identifying who you are and when they pose a barrier.”
Evan’s family has always revolved around his needs. We’re in the hero’s head as much we’re outside it, perceiving events as ever present even when long past. And no, as written, performed, and directed, it’s not confusing. There are two parallel stories with childhood floating through both.
Trent Saunders, Rose Hemingway
Scenario I: Michael (Trent Saunders, one author’s sibling, the other’s son) has brought his fiancé Chelsea (Rose Hemingway) to the Newton family cabin in the Alaska wilderness to meet his autistic older brother. Evan (composer/lyricist Heath Saunders) has pronounced idiosyncrasies such as getting upset if things are not done just so, skewed cognizance of time, and an inability to bear being touched. Chelsea has yet to be told he’ll live with the soon-to-be-newlyweds.
Much to Michael’s relief, Chelsea “handles” his brother’s mercurial fluctuations with natural warmth and quick, imaginative wit that diffuses a succession of volatile moments. When an argument arises during “Evan’s Magical Game of Croquet,” (his rules, his wins), she suggests that a free time out should be allotted if someone does something interesting in exchange – and promptly stands on her head. Michael is astonished that Evan agrees. He doesn’t see his brother fall in love.
Andrea Jones-Sojola, Heath Saunders
Evan observes/remembers his parents. Nate (David Dewitt) is convinced the boy must be watched at all times, that he’ll never be able to take care of himself. Audrey (Andrea Jones-Sojola) believes her son can do anything given patience and tools – a series of recitations and puzzles meant to create focus. (Details here are wonderful.) Sometimes a hand/Gets a little more wear/But you and I/Are not easy to scare…the young parents sing. “I’m the perfect teammate,” Evan recites, “I’m everything I need.”
Scenario II: Evan arrives at the cabin five years later (he’s 29) to introduce his girlfriend Charlie (Rachel Kara Perez) to his father and to the environment that nurtured him. He intends to propose.
Rachel Kara Perez, Heath Saunders
Charlie is shocked and angry to discover that after two years her boyfriend hadn’t revealed he had a living parent and brother. She’s taken what she perceives as quirks in stride, unaware of his diagnosis. Communication is nuanced because we know what she doesn’t. Clearly, Evan, whose intellect was never in question (he now has a masters) has come up with methods to cope. Nate has not changed his opinion over the years.
We see how the loving Newtons raised Evan with diametrically opposed points of view, how strain affected each family member resulting in antagonism and free floating blame; the way Evan relates to and impacts Michael and Chelsea, and his unexpectedly ‘normal’ liaison with Charlie. More than anything else, however, it’s the hero’s relationship to the world to which we’re privy. There’s a pattern there/An order I see/But it isn’t there for me…
Heath Saunders, David Dewitt
The company is terrific, so symbiotic one can’t help but hope they stay together for the show’s next iteration. All voices are excellent. That of Andrea Jones-Sokola is viscerally tender. Monologues are delivered with time enough to formulate thought. Everyone listens. Even the way these characters look at each other adds atmosphere.
Heath Saunders manages to imbue young Evan with innocence and older Evan with dignity – which is not to say he down pedals first, innate selfishness and confusion and later, the struggle to exert control and adapt without losing himself. The character’s reveries are haunting. His panic primal. Every emotion arrives as unconditional.
Director Victoria Clark manifests simultaneous periods of time with such clear priorities and visuals, we’re always able to distinguish between what’s current and what’s memory. I can think of only a single instance, an event communicated by sound, where what occurred is not obvious. Attention is omnipresent, especially as embodied by Evan who must seem pointedly “elsewhere” rather than distracted. Sympathy is never saccharine. Small stage business is adroit.
Two of many beautifully understated moments are when each person, moving balletically across the stage, picks up, revolves, and overturns a piece of furniture creating a different, less stable environment and when the tall, lanky Evan curls to lay his head on the back shoulder of his upset mother. Choreography during a fugue state, depicted by his slowly being lifted or turned by each person onstage, is mesmerizing. (Sara Brains)
Heath Saunders’s score is melodic and evocative; his lyrics sensitive, uncompromisingly specific, often seamlessly intertwined with dialogue. The book (and additional lyrics) by his mother, Kim Saunders, is moving and well researched, every character and relationship credible.
Quentin Chiappetta’s Sound Design, which begins with a screen door squeaking open – not counting the birds, adds extra dimension. (The thunk of hitting croquet balls is missing, however.) One imagines Evan’s aural sensibilities as being physiologically enhanced.
What appears to be casual Costuming nonetheless fits each character. (Maria Hooper)
Newton’s Cradle is a tale told with eloquence, grace, and respect, not pity. We leave uplifted and illuminated – no rose colored glasses.
Note: After its last performance, after I wrote this, the show was duly recognized winning 6 New York Musical Festival Awards.
Photos by Michael Kushner.
Opening: Heath Saunders
New York Musical Festival presents
Music & Lyrics- Heath Saunders
Book & Additional Lyrics- Kim Saunders
Directed by Victoria Clark
Music Director-Jesse Kissel
Orchestrations- James Dobinson
229 West 42nd Street
August 7, 2016