One mother’s personal story of a child with special needs in ‘Brilliant’ at Theatre Row

Playing a five-performance world-premiere engagement in the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival at Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row, Brilliant follows the journey of a mother struggling to care for a child on the autism spectrum. Written by Philadelphia-based Dani Tapper (music, book, and lyrics) and based on her real-life experiences, the personal heartfelt musical describes the range of emotions and difficult decisions she had to face on behalf of the son she loves unconditionally. It is also meant to send a comforting message to other families of children with special needs that they are not alone, even though each and every one is different.

Presented by Dani B Productions – dedicated to developing new works that focus on the family and childhood experience – the go-back story begins with the excited parents getting the positive results of the mother’s pregnancy test, then traces, through a chronological sequence of short scenes and songs, the challenges and uncertainty of how best to provide the much-needed care for her extremely intelligent boy, who was, after many unsuccessful (and often unsympathetic) attempts to understand and to deal with his social, emotional, and disruptive behavioral issues by perplexed teachers, counselors, and doctors, at last diagnosed with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (HFASD).

The one-act narrative explains the overwhelming frustration, ensuing marital conflicts, and agonizing choices that would affect the child’s future, as well as his trust in his devoted mother, who shouldered the bulk of the burden and heartbreak, and after a few disturbingly violent episodes, was forced to make the hard call, along with his often insensitive, angry, and distant father, of sending him away for a period of recommended treatment. Will it destroy their relationship, or can they come together again to fill their home with love?

Kimberly Suskind. Photo courtesy of the production.

Directed by Misti B. Wills, Kimberly Suskind brings a softly expressive voice and empathy to her portrayal of the mother Sarah. She is joined by Courtney Dease as her husband Jake, Asher Edgecliffe Johnson as her young son Adam and Hayden Bercy as the teenage Adam (who inexplicably appear together and interact with one another in several scenes), and EmmaLee Kidwell as Adam’s loving and lovable big sister Kat, with Maria Panvini and Morgan Scott assuming the multiple roles of the professionals Sarah encounters and the other local mothers she meets, whose scenes are intended to add some touches of humor to the drama.

Though the movement of the cast, dressed in everyday costumes by Emily White, is mostly limited to downstage in the small performance space, the simple set design by April Marie Bartlett (art director of The Today Show), consisting of movable white boxes, panels, and black-and-white chairs, evokes the changing locations of the scenes, supported by Dan Henry’s lighting and sound by Josh Liebert. The characters’ songs are backed by a three-piece band (musical director and conductor Casey Reed on keyboard, Lydia Paulos on cello and glockenspiel, and Erika Friedman on reeds), with orchestrations by Samuel Columbus.

For those unfamiliar with the behavioral effects of HFASD, Brilliant provides some telling information. For those, like the playwright, who are, it offers catharsis and community.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.

Brilliant plays through Saturday, October 2, 2021, at Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, performing at Theatre Row, Theatre 2, 410 W. 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets, priced at $25, go online. All audience members ages twelve and older must present proof of FDA or WHO authorized full vaccination or a negative test on paper or mobile device to enter the building; everyone aged two and older must wear a mask at all times.


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