Like most festival shows (at the New York Musical Festival and otherwise), the curtain time was considerably delayed at the performance I attended of Newton’s Cradle. But it gave me the opportunity to eavesdrop on director Victoria Clark, the Tony Award-winning actress with 12 Broadway credits to her name. Sitting behind me in the last row of the theatre, she meticulously watched the audience enter, making sure everyone had a seat and repeatedly saying to her assistant that she would give up her own, if necessary. But like her approach to this earnest new musical by the mother and son team of Kim and Heath Saunders, the sold-out audience was the perfect fit. Standing wasn’t necessary, until the end, of course, when the crowd leaped to a standing ovation.
That’s not saying that Newton’s Cradle is ready for Clark’s thirteenth Broadway credit (and first as director)—yet—but there’s certainly enough there to warrant producers to take a closer look at this pixelated story about Evan (Heath Sanders), a young autistic man and his relationship to those he loves.
The word “autistic” actually doesn’t appear until late in the musical, and his spectrum and capability of engaging in the world are challenged throughout three coinciding timelines that explore his relationship with his girlfriend Charlie (Rachel Kara Perez); his younger brother Michael (Trent Saunders) and Michael’s fiancée Chelsea (Rose Hemingway); and his parents Nate (David Dewitt) and Audrey (Andrea Jones-Sojola).
In a crafty bit of playwriting, these three throughlines weave in and out of one another and occasionally overlap, all spurred by Nate’s well-craft wedding proposal, which unleashes a flood of meticulously documented memories. Clark deftly navigates most of the material for her actors, anchored by Heath Saunders’ poignant, funny, and heartbreaking portrayal. He provides ample repartee for his real-life/onstage brother and other ensemble members. As composer and lyricist, he’s equally as gifted.
Set in and around a family cabin outside of Denali, Alaska, the playwrights purposefully describe the characters as “a melting pot of race and ethnicity.” It’s as fresh as the mountain air to see a production with multicultural casting that doesn’t have to play the race card in its content. They also aren’t afraid to get ugly. This isn’t a saccharine sympathy piece, with one of the most charged moments being Michael’s solo, “Nothing Compared to You,” a bleeding testimony of his resentments toward Evan, his mother, and his lot in life as caretaker.
Where Newton’s Cradle may find more solid ground is in its character development beyond the specific family and relationship dynamics. While outlined in the script (Michael is a social worker, Evan a surgeon, Charlie a mathematician, etc.), most of the time it feels like (with the exception of Evan) we’re watching some very talented musical theater performers. Their movement is almost too perfect.
Choreographer and associate director Sara Brians pulls movement styles from the similarly crafted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so brilliantly choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly. Lorin Latarro did the same for the current production of Waitress. It’s a purposeful pedestrian sensibility that suits this storyline as well. Perhaps with more time, such staging might read more organic.
Newton’s Cradle reminds us of the gift of musical theatre, that stories of all kind with people of all kind can be told and honored.
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Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and a regular contributor to Passport Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @roodeloo.