Book: Kim Saunders
Music &Lyrics: Heath Saunders
Director: Victoria Clark
Reviewer: Tim Koch
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a tricky subject to discuss in real life, much less on stage. But the company of the New York Musical Festival’s production of Newton’s Cradle successfully guides the audience on an emotionally-infused journey into the mind and world of Evan (Heath Saunders), a young man with autism, and the family and friends who are part of his world both by birth and by choice.
Co-written by mother-son team Kim and Heath Saunders, and directed by TonyAward-winning actor Victoria Clark (A Light in the Piazza), Newton’s Cradle takes place over multiple summers in the Newton’s family cabin in Alaska. Set in a region where the sun never sets, the musical gives an unflinching look at the way ASD affects both the diagnosed and the family thatmust learn to communicate and understand someone who, on the surface, can be extremely difficult. When Evan brings his girlfriend Charlie (Rachel Kara Perez) to the cabin to propose, he is unaware that this act will open a flood of memories and challenge his views of himself and those he has known.
A challenge in viewing this production is the lack of a clear timeline, but as is eventually explained, this is Evan’s worldview. His memories aren’t sequential; events occurring years apart can seem to happen at the same time. It’s an effective way of getting inside his mind, although it can take a bit to get used to. Additionally, many sounds are augmented–the pouring of a glass of water, birds, a car–which is a powerful way of showing how the world affects him, and how it can distract or disturb him.
Saunders’ modern score mixes electronic and traditional elements, alternating between a hyperactive, pulsing motif to calmer, slower tempos, reflecting what’s going on inside Evan’s head while also allowing for expression of individual character. The cast solidly navigates the often complex score and infuses great emotion into their singing. The lyrics are perhaps this production’s roughest element, and sometimes venture into juvenile rhymes, but overall they are effective in conveying what the character is trying to say.
Real-life brothers Heath and Trent Saunders imbuea natural energy into the relationship between the fictional brothers Evan and Michael, and they do a lotof the heavy vocal lifting. Girlfriends Charlie (Perez) and Chelsea (Rose Hemingway) bring a brightness to the production, get moments to shine, and are great balances to their respective boyfriends. Andrea Jones-Sojola (Audrey) brings a more operatic and gentle tonality to her role as Evan and Michael’s mother, which contrasts nicely with the rest of the cast and helps ground her character. And while he is not often onstage, David DeWitt is affecting in his performance as conflicted father Nate.
Clark’s direction makes full use of the simplistic set (Luke Cantarella), evoking everything from an outside game of croquet, one of the highlights of this production, to the exact placement of a chair. And the background, a simple white canvas, is employedeffectively withlighting (Zach Blane) to switch between the physical world and the one inside Evan’s head.
Newton’s Cradle is a well-realized production with some rough edges, but it’s worth attending to see a moving show that gives much to reflect upon in the way we define and keep (or don’t keep) our relationships.
Currently in its thirteenth year, the New York Musical Festival “nurtures the creation, production, and public presentation of stylistically, thematically, and culturally diverse new musicals to ensure the future vitality of musical theater [and] provides an affordable platform for artists to mount professional productions that reach their peers, industry leaders, and musical theater fans.”
Runs until 7 August 2016