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Don't Cry for Me

Two musicals explore the crises in families and Christian boy bands.

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“Our clocks are always fast,” complains teenager Polly Freeman (Ali Thibodeau). That's the kind of detail that defines the Freeman family, the focus of Stage 1's enthralling and frustrating new musical, “Normal.”
Led by the high-strung and over-controlling Gayla (Julie Fulcher) and the ineffectual bread winner Robert (Ford Flannagan), the Freemans epitomize the over-scheduled middle-class clan more concerned with insisting that everything's fine than dealing with a disturbing reality. When Polly's steadfast pursuit of weight loss devolves into a life-threatening disorder, each family member, including older child Zachary (Dave Amadee), struggles unsuccessfully to find his or her way through the crisis.

The most absorbing aspect of this production is the trajectory of the two Freeman children. Thibodeau is luminous as Ali, asserting a tragic empowerment that contrasts with her disappearing body, defiantly proclaimed in the heartbreaking song, “Write This,” in which Polly imagines what would be written on her tombstone.

Playing the most emotionally healthy one of the bunch, Amadee shows remarkable maturity as well as a knockout singing voice. Unfortunately, too much of the story concerns the tribulations of the clichAcd Freeman parents, with two excellent actors constricted by characters that never seem to reach an epiphany.

The lead players are supported by an excellent trio of women dressed all in white (Terri Moore, Debra Wagoner and Angela Shipley), who each find moments to shine. At different times, the Women represent the medical, therapeutic and 12-step establishments and they offer no solace to a family in crisis, a somewhat bitter subtext. The production continues the exceptional technical quality Stage 1's shows have exhibited, including a particularly rich lighting design by Kenny Mullins and a set nicely accented by portraits on Plexiglas by Amy Sullivan.

“Normal” has had only one other production off-Broadway and, while not perfect, it's the kind of challenging new show not usually seen in Richmond. That alone makes it worth a look. — Dave Timberline

“Normal” plays through April 25 at Stage 1 Theatre, 9130 Dickey Drive. Tickets are $15-22. Call 427-7548 or visit www.stage1-theatrecompany.org.

The “Altar Boyz” are back, repeating the final performance of their “Raise the Praise Tour,” this time in Colonial Heights at Swift Creek Mill. But don't go expecting to see a regurgitation of the Richmond Triangle Players' version presented in February. This is a completely different show. The Swift Creek incarnation of the trials of a Christian boy band is heavy on production elements and subtle on the sexy.

Director Tom Width shows great judgment in focusing on the elements of lighting, choreography, music and singing that scream “commercial boy band,” but loses some of the wicked humor of the show by downplaying the sexiness. There's really only one boy in this band, Sean B. Williams, who plays the Christian pop group's sole Jewish member. Williams does a phenomenal job keeping up with the other musical theater heavy hitters in the cast: Brandon Becker, David Janeski, Eric Stallings and Brett Ambler. The talent, the moves and the music are all there but curiously absent is the Justin Timberlake attitude. Ambler is especially miscast as the very Latino Juan but his comedic timing and over-the-top Mexican accent make him lovable anyway.

Lighting designer Joe Doran and choreographer Mickey Nugent join forces with musical director Paul Diess to work major magic on the Swift Creek stage. The stadium-worthy lighting effects and excellent sound make the small space seem gigantic. The dance moves are bright and tight, giving the cast ample opportunity to show off.

The show, though not as oversexed as the previous production, is hilarious in this version and may appeal to an audience normally made uncomfortable by gyrating young men, Christian-themed or otherwise. — Mary Burruss

“Altar Boyz” is at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, through May 30. Tickets are $35. Call 748-5203 or visit www.swiftcreekmill.com.

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