American Legacy Theatre’s world premiere of “Higher” is a relevant tale for our time. “Higher” is a good start to leaving a legacy. It asks hard questions and provides some answers. The one question at the heart of the rock musical “How can you fight addiction when the stigma is just as bad?”
“Higher” is an original rock musical centered around the opioid crisis and one man’s (Benjamin, played with great delight by Robert Carlton Stimmel) journey to recovery. It’s at times humorous (mostly in the second act), dramatic, grim, and uplifting. But mostly it is a show unlike any you’ve ever seen. It’s ambitious, compelling, and thought-provoking.
Director Matthew Gellin intentionally kept the set sparse. He says it’s to strip away insecurities and break the walls of stigma. It’s effective. You’re not drawn away by dazzling lighting effects, motion graphics, over-the-top set pieces that move or morph into something else. It’s simply a set with two platforms that function in multiple ways (Benjamin’s bedroom, the steps of a non-descript building for a protest, even a descent into the depths of the hell of addiction led by a conniving Mara (masterfully played by Erin Reardon). The cyclorama is put to good use by highlighting the different emotions of the characters and their situations.
The cast is a cohesive ensemble. Deondra Kamau Means rips your heart out at times while he belts his heart out as Father. Clare Hingsbergen, as Mother, pulls out all the stops with her strong vocals and an emotional range that is not only motherly but reflects us as an everyman. Ian Timothy Forsgren plays Kyle, Benjamin’s childhood best friend. When the two young men are hit by an explosive device on an unnamed battlefield, Forsgren plunges his Kyle into the depths of human suffering physically (his writhing in the wheelchair is heart-wrenching) and emotionally (when he shoots up heroin his puckered and fluttering facial expressions bring the audience into a world of addiction that is all too real).
The opening night production had several sound issues with microphones not on at the correct times, or feedback running unchecked for several seconds. It is a musical, but there wasn’t much choreography as you might expect. Although ensemble member Chris Monell was a highlight with his crisp, well-controlled and vibratory movements that enhanced the dance stylings from Fosse to hip-hop and jazz-based Broadway.
Playwright, composer, and lyricist Mark Levine is a Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor who brings an very unique perspective to what could have been a mundane melodrama. Instead, he mixes all sorts of emotional elements into a well-written story. His music mixes a bit of Les Miz drama (songs reminiscent of “Bring Him Home” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”) character arcs, and a bit of Miss Saigon (“Why God?” “Bui Doi” and “The American Dream” – in fact, a song that stuck with this reviewer was titled “America” which points fingers at Big Pharma, politicians, and the gentrification of our society).
The newest theatre company in town, American Legacy Theatre, wants to create memorable, impactful experiences for audiences and artists. They’re off to a great start with Higher which will definitely leave a legacy.