By Karen Isaacs
Bravo – Rob Ruggiero! Bravo to the outstanding cast of Next to Normal now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, May 14.
This is a fabulous production of a musical that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. The more intimate TheaterWorks venue increases our involvement in the story and our emotional attachment to the characters.
Next to Normal tells the story of Diana, a wife and mother who has battled bipolar disorder and depression for years. Her illness has impacted both her teenage daughter, Natalie, and her husband, Dan. She’s tried multiple therapies, physicians and medications; some of them work, some of them cause serious side effects and most of them cease to be helpful over time.
Her illness is characterized by seeing visions of Gabe – their son who died at 8 months of age, nearly 18 years ago. He seems to constantly be around her and he comments on the action.
This is, as one audience member said at intermission “not ‘My Fair Lady.’”
But in the capable hands of the cast and Ruggiero it is a show that will tug at your emotions. No one is the “bad guy” – not the doctors, not Diana, not Dan and not Gabe. Each is trapped in his or her own world.
Tom Kitt (composer) and Brian Yorkey (libretto and lyrics) have crafted a tight story that propels us along. In the beginning it takes time for us to realize that Gabe is his mother’s vision and not a real character and longer for us to learn what had happened.
As with any serious and chronic illness, the entire family feels the impact. Natalie feels overlooked and ignored because so much of the attention is on her mother and the mother’s mental state. She feels unloved by her mother who, perhaps as a defense mechanism after her son’s death, was reluctant to form an attachment with the baby. Diana has missed multiple events in Natalie’s life.
Dan has tried to compensate to Natalie, but his energy is also focused on helping his wife get well, accompanying her to various doctor’s appointments and trying to balance job, marriage and family.
Natalie does develop a healthy relationship with Henry, a teenage boy who provides some of the support and attention she obviously needs. But she is fearful that she may follow her mother’s path.
The story of Diana’s struggle with mental health leads to her trying ECT, what is often called electro-shock therapy which seems to help some. But who know what the long term prognosis will be. The doctors say her condition is chronic and can only be managed, not cured.
What makes this production so outstanding is the cast and the atmosphere developed by Ruggiero. He has used the aisles of the theater to bring us closer to the action. We see characters standing in the aisle observing the action just as we are.
The only time I have seen the show was the touring production that played the Bushnell several years ago. While well done, the huge theater and the huge stage created a gulf between the characters and the audience that diminished the emotional impact. That and the amplification of the sound made everything feel disembodied.
Here, we are close to the stage. We can see the expressions on the faces of the characters, we do not need blaring amplification to catch every word of both dialogue and songs. While the show is often described as a “rock” show, here much of the music seems gentler and softer.
Christane Noll who has received Tony nominations gives a subtle performance as Diana and makes the most of every song from the humorous “My Psychopharmacologist and I” to the touching “You Don’t Know” and “I Dreamed a Dance”.
Her performance is matched by David Harris as Dan, her husband. You may remember him as Billy Crocker in Goodspeed’s Anything Goes or Valjean in the Connecticut Rep’s Les Mis. Here he is tender and caring yet weary of the burdens. He and Noll are terrific in the duet “A Light in the Dark”
Maya Keleher who plays Natalie is making her professional debut. Based on this
performance of the often uncertain teenager, you can predict a successful career for her. She shows us all sides of Natalie and handles the songs well. Nick Sacks who plays Henry is also a relative newcomer (a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon) and also displays great talent. He makes Henry both gawky and touching. You believe their young love. The duet between Sacks and Keleher, “Perfect for You” and his with Harris “A Promise” are terrific.
John Cardoza has the difficult role as Gabe, Diana’s vision. It would be too easy for Gabe to become “creepy” with his often silent, hovering presence, but Cardoza doesn’t let it happen. He is a benign memory or “ghost”. J. D. Daw plays two of the medical people that Diana sees.
Wilson Chin has created one of TheaterWorks’ most elaborate sets with a turntable that allows the scenes to flow smoothly. The set features many household items including multiple table lamps, perhaps signifying the need to bring into the light the issues involving mental illness. He is aided by the lighting design of John Lasiter.
Tribute must be given to musical director Adam Souza who has helped the singers make the most of the songs as well as conducting the six piece orchestra that is hidden back stage. Ed Chapman has balanced the sound system beautifully.
Next to Normal may not be the show for everyone due to its subject matter, but it is a show for anyone who wants to see an outstanding production of a touching and moving theatrical work.
Next to Normal is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Sunday, May 14. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.
This material is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.