Milwaukee’s Kith & Kin Theatre Collective Presents Pulitzer Prize Winner: Next To Normal!

Kith & Kin Artistic Director, Kimberly Laberge, brings another challenging musical drama to a Milwaukee area stage with Next To Normal. The musical’s book and lyrics were written by Brian Yorkey with the rock music by Tom Kitt. Next To Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama.

This is the second time that I have experienced theater in the charming and inviting Interchange Theater Co-op’s black box theater. And this time, the room was filled with rock music telling a very difficult but engaging drama. We meet a very contemporary American family, mother, father, son, and daughter. And they have a secret…or maybe not a secret…but a dynamic that they are trying to gloss over until they can’t anymore.

the entire cast

So let’s meet our family! Diana Goodman is the mother, and at K&K she is played by Wendy Rightler. Her loving and supportive husband, Dan, is played by Patrick Jones. Sanaa Harper is their somewhat distant but determined daughter, Natalie and Daniel Bingham plays her brother Gabriel. There are two other cast members, Cory J O’Donnell who plays Natalie’s love interest and Justin Spanbauer who plays the part of two different doctors.

Dan and Diana foreground, Natalie and Henry to the right

Diana and Dan married relatively young and apparently very much in love. But Diana is struggling with a number of mental health issues…struggling for about sixteen years. Wendy Rightler’s portrayal of Diana is spot on throughout as Diana passes from lucidity to a bit of depression to confusion and back around. And Wendy’s vocals here are incredible…this is a particularly challenging role emotionally as well as vocally. Diana has the majority of the singing parts here. One of the family ‘secrets’ is how serious Diana’s illness can be at times…and Wendy’s performance here let’s us feel all of it and we wish we could intercede at some point.

Dan, as played by Patrick Jones, is desperately in love with Diana and struggles with her struggles. And he is willing to help and support her in any and every way that he can. And although he thinks he feels her pain, Diana lets him know that he just doesn’t quite get it. Patrick lets us see how Dan is feeling, his intense need to help, and his loss and frustration at his lack of success.

Henry and Natalie

And our teen-age love interest? Sanaa Harper playing Natalie is a challenging and very determined teen with a goal and path clearly in mind…but she feels that she is on her own. Until Cory J O’Donnell as Henry strolls into her life. Of course there is the initial hesitancy, some on and off again moments, and little personal victories along the way. Sanaa and Cory were the ideal casting to represent this couple…and Sanaa can really effectively belt out the songs than bring us into the heart of soul of Natalie.


And then we have Gabriel…Daniel Bingham is absolutely amazing here. Gabriel has a key role in Next To Normal and Daniel inhabits it directly. His fluid movements across stage invest the character with the necessary presence and attitude. And his interactions with Diana and Dan are linchpin moments in the story…I don’t want to say more here.

And is there a doctor in the house? Well yes, there are actually two, both played by Justin Spanbauer in very very different guises!

Diana and Doctor Madden

Next To Normal is a hard charging rock musical with surprising little dialogue. And the cast members each have the range and strengths best suited their parts and characters. But the rock band is off to the left of the audience, side stage, but at stage level…and they are just too loud at times and the some very important vocal content got lost for me…particularly during ensemble numbers like the opening scene.

But kudos to director Kimberly Laberge and stage manager Brianna Cullen…the motion and interaction…on movements on and off stage…are so smooth and easy that the audience doesn’t actually catch notice. And normally a good lighting director goes unnoticed because the lighting works, but I noticed Erin Dillon’s lighting on Saturday night because it really works!!!

Kith & Kin is a relatively new theater group in Milwaukee, and you can read more about them here.

Next To Normal opened this weekend and repeats next weekend November 17 – 19, 2023. Order Tickets Here!

Complete disclosures: Kimberly Laberge and Brianna Cullen are personal friends. And the photos here were stolen from Kith & Kin posts on social media but I have been told that all photos are courtesy of Adam Harrison..

Stupid F*cking Bird: A Staged Reading By Placeholder Players

Here we are: standing on Wells Street in front of Sunstone Studios in the shadows of the Pabst Theater and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. A charming little store front that I didn’t know existed until…well…right now!

Here we are: sitting in a cozy little black box theater watching as others file in and find a comfortable seat, all of us wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Here we are: staring at the cast assembled on stage, all of waiting for whatever is to come next, until an actor proclaims in his best outside voice, we can’t start until someone says, start the fucking play…followed by a voice from out of the ceiling somewhere, in a very sonorous voice, which proclaims, no rather demands, ‘start the fucking play’!

Oooh. That word. The one often referred to as the F Bomb…isn’t in the title just as click bait so to speak. That little four letter word, at one time just a crude street term for a bodily function, is freely used throughout the play in all of it’s shapes and sizes: adjective, noun, verb, adverb, rebuke, and…well and…an expletive. Hardly gratuitous in its various iterations but often shocking nonetheless.

So…the play begins. And I am a bit surprised. I have attended readings before, both in person and online, particularly during the pandemic. But director Kimberly Laberge emphasized during a brief conversation before the play, that this was a staged reading. So instead of actors sitting at table, scripts in hand, or seated in a semi-circle of chairs and moving to a podium to recite their lines on cue, Laberge instead has them acting, interacting, and moving about the simple platform black box stage…but without prominent costumes, no set, no props.

And so the play begins…with all hands on deck…performing a play, scratch that, a site specific event written by aspiring playwright Conrad. It is off to a rousing start before being interrupted by Emma, an actress in this site specific event, an actress professionally, and Conrad’s mother. A note to aspiring playwrights, you might not want to cast your mother in your cutting edge play. But as Conrad and Emma continue to interact, or not, in later scenes, this isn’t about this new play directly. Although certainly Emma doesn’t quite get the play, the problems really stem from an apparent life long conflict between a distracted mother who likes to play the victim and a son who wants his mother’s love and acceptance. And if you think that’s a heavy concept, we are just getting started.

back row, left to right, Kim Emmer, Rick Bingen, Jabril Rilley; front row, Grace Berendt, Bill Molitor, and standing, Mary Grace Seigel. Photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

But what is the play about? Well, of course familial issues as I mentioned just above. And ART vs. Art vs. art? Conrad is trying to do NEW ART but is struggling, so maybe do old Art better or is there only going to be art? And besides society and culture and the things in his head that are holding him back, he’s faced with his mother’s new beau, Trigorin, a very successful and maybe a bit smug author. And then of course, there is the doubt and angst of young love as the four young people try to sort out their feelings for one another and for themselves as well. And of course it gets complicated, very, very complicated. How complicated? Well, after a brief conversation with Trigorin initiated by Nina, Conrad’s love interest and the lead in is theater piece, about what it feels like to be famous and his reply, what does it feel like to be beautiful…they run off together. A similar dynamic plays out between Dev and Mash. Dev loves Mash, but it is suggested at times she is crushing on Conrad…but they somehow come together and find life instead of running away looking for something more perfect.

Grace Berendt and Jabril Rilley, photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

And finally, Sorn, a doctor and Emma’s brother, seems to be the level headed adult in the room…until he reveals his own doubts about his life, his practice, and his relationships. At first to us and then to the other characters.

Which brings us to a new part of this play…Sorn reveals his secret to the audience first…there is no fourth wall here…well…yes there is at times…but every character is aware that they are actors in a play (not just the site specific event portion). And they address each other on personal levels and they will address the audience directly at times and ask for advice at others. And Aaron Posner, the playwright, has made that change so fluid that we don’t always recognize the shift in roles.

Zachary Thomas Woods and Kim Emmer, photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

So, who’s who? Zachary Thomas Woods is Conrad. He plays him to the hilt and maybe a bit over the top at times, but the role requires anger, frustration, depression, and one’s best outside voice (and he feels thwarted – he clearly says so). Woods exemplifies the confusion that Conrad feels. Mary Grace Seigel is Nina and has an apparently softer role initially but she also brings a toughness and edge when she finally decides what she wants and it’s not Conrad and it’s not here.

Mary Grace Seigel and Rick Bingen, photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

Jabril Rilley is Dev, Conrad’s bestie who loves Mash played by Grace Berendt. Rilley is perfect as Dev, asking all the right questions about love and life and being the common sense partner. And Mash eventually comes to see that as well. Berendt exhibits all of the quirkiness and creativity that Mash should exude. Kim Emmer is Emma and easily shifts from ingenue to manipulative mother to hurt lover to quiet acquiescence. And Rick Bingen keeps Trigorin’s cool as he manipulates his relationship with both Emma and Nina. And Bill Molitor as Sorn, brings us that cool detached sure male doctor even when he reveals that he is only acting…even then he never breaks out of his role. I have seen Molitor a number of times including in a previous Laberge direction of “Things I Know To Be True” and he’s just comfortable on stage no matter how trying the situation he finds his character in.

Jabril Rilley, Grace Berendt, Bill Molitor, Zachary Thomas Woods, Kim Emmer, Rick Bingen, Mary Grace Seigel, photo courtesy of Placeholders Players MKE

I didn’t do any research on this play before I headed off to the theater. And I am very happy about that…this play is truly amazing in and of itself…and this cast brought it to absolute life…even without props or formal sets…but purely through their sheer will to bring this thing to the stage. But after I got home and checked out Aaron Posner, I realized that he had also written, “My Name Is Asher Lev“, one of my favorites from a few years ago at the Milwaukee Repertory.

Now, full disclosure. Kimberly Laberge is a personal friend of mine!!!

But for my theater going readers: If you see Kimberly Laberge is directing anything, anywhere, go see it. Whether it is a cutting edge drama like “Stupid Fucking Bird” or a classic musical like “Cabaret“, she has just wowed me.

For my theater producing friends looking for a director –>hire Kimberly Laberge.

I am not sure that Conrad ever got the catharsis that he was demanding near the end, but we did.

photo courtesy of Placeholders Players MKE

P.S. There is a bird in this play…a seagull…as this is labeled as Sort of adapted from The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. Fancy that as we should!