Rider Strong's debut play Never Ever Land is a dark, at times disturbing narrative about one family's fallout with a notably tragic event. And its precise direction and impressive acting make this a meaningful and powerhouse production.
NEVER EVER LAND
A Theatre Unleashed production
Written by Rider Strong
Directed by Michael A. Sheppard
Studio/stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles.
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:00 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 27.
Tickets for $35 at theatreunleashed.org
Never Ever Land is a dramatized account and the resulting fallout of the Gable Family(loosely based off the real-life Chandler Family) surrounding the 1993 child sexual abuse accusations against Michael Jackson. That being said, this show isn't really about The King of Pop; in fact, his name isn't mentioned on stage at all during the production. Instead, the show chooses to focus on the family themselves, and the resulting wounds they suffer from the litigation. Strong invites the audience to take a dark look into the real cost of celebrity, fame, and fortune and how those burdens can often be too heavy for those who carry them.
The story itself is performed in alternating scenes shifting from the events leading up to the trial in 1993 and the aftermath many years later in 2012. Despite the back and forth changes, you never feel lost from a narrative standpoint. Sheppard's clear direction and well-defined transitions help keep things in place for the audience.
The Gable family includes Gerry (Josh Randal), an unscrupulous dentist and aspiring screenwriter, his divorced wife DeAnna (Marie-Francoise Theodore), an actor struggling to find work and the children, including Young Tim (Marcello Silva), a child actor and half brother to Young Jacob (Orlando Christian), who is mentioned to have been sick in his youth overcoming an oncological difficulty. Jacob seems to be based on an amalgamation of real-life Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo. At first, it seems Gerry encourages his son's friendship with the singer, even seeing it as advantageous for himself as he figures he might be able to get his film script financed. But Gerry soon becomes increasingly alarmed with the amount of time his son is spending at Never Land Ranch and begins to suspect sexual abuse of Jacob.
Fast forward to nineteen years later, and now an adult Tim (Andrew Brian Carter) approaches Vincent Hark (Leif Gantvoort) founder of Hark-TV, a TMZ like tabloid media enterprise. Who is interested in trading what he calls a truthful account of what actually happened to his family in exchange for employment with Hark-TV. He stated he received the real details from his father, Gerry, who went on to commit suicide a few months after Jackson's death.
As far as Jacob (Wade F. Wilson), we find him now living in Los Angeles modeling sporadically. He is an individual who clearly still feels the impact of the trauma of what happened so many years ago, manifesting itself in both mental and physical ailments that trouble him daily. It seems the only person he feels himself around is the latest girlfriend Erin (Ashley Platz), a recent transplant from New York.
The performances by the actors are all supreme, and the entire cast should be commended for their terrific chemistry together on stage. I want to highlight Randal's jaw-dropping performance and transformation into Gerry Gable. He brings such raw intensity and unbridled anger to the role.
The production team makes excellent use of the small space using rolling flats to transform the stage into a variety of places, whether that be a home, outside a courtroom, or an office building. Additionally, I would like to give extra kudos to the most realistic built prop soda machine I have seen on stage in Los Angeles Theatre. The music and sound design were spot on as well, filled with the nineties pop nostalgia and music eerily familiar of Jackson's most familiar tunes.
Overall, Never Ever Land is a poignant and well-executed production from top to bottom. It is a, skillfully written dark drama that takes a genuine hard look at what can happen to a family when they are exposed to the ugly side of celebrity culture.
Rider Strong's debut play is an absolute success filled with engaging performances that will keep you fixed to the edge of your seat from beginning to end, I definitely recommend checking this one out.