Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of NEXT TO NORMAL at TheaterWorks Hartford
Through May 14th
At any given time, 20-25% of Americans are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and over half of us will develop one at some point in our lives. Despite the knowledge that countless among us suffer, it is incomprehensible that stigma about mental illness still remains – and that understanding and acceptance trail considerably far behind ignorance, judgment, and discrimination. But with theatre as such a positive and powerful vehicle for social change and one which can provide a voice to so many, it is through provocative works like the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning “rock musical” Next to Normal that we have an opportunity to raise awareness, and hopefully someday, make a difference when it comes to the issues of mental health.
The brilliantly conceived Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, took to the boards with an extraordinarily talented cast at Hartford’s TheaterWorks. It is a total tour de force, under the direction of their formidable artistic director, Rob Ruggiero. This captivating, insistent, and virtually flawless production singlehandedly raises the bar for regional theatre in Connecticut and beyond. What’s more, as Ruggiero points out in his director’s notes, through the use of music, theatre makes a unique and profound connection to the human spirit. Music serves to engage, uplift, and enhance our personal and interpersonal experiences, and it allows for unique social expression as it strengthens the bonds of our relational connectedness. As if by invisible threads, in Next to Normal, we as an audience have the opportunity both to connect with its compelling characters as well as to one another.
We may ask ourselves, What is normal? And, Is there really such a thing? And even, “Who’s Crazy?” In the heart of suburbia we find ourselves planted on the periphery of the Goodmans’ well-appointed home. Diana is a typical mom, or so she’d seem, and as the play opens we see that she cares deeply for her family. She starts the day as every day, making breakfast, preparing lunches, and getting kids, Gabe and Natalie, along with hubby, Dan, off to school and work. To her it is “Just Another Day” – that is, until it isn’t. The façade crumbles post haste when Dan has to scrape her up off her knees after she short-circuits, nearly plastering the entire kitchen floor with bologna sandwich after bologna sandwich.What we quickly come to learn is that Diana suffers from debilitating bipolar disorder. For most of her adult life she has been plagued with symptoms in varying degrees, in great part due to both treatment resistance as well as her own compliance issues. But what exactly is bipolar disorder? It is a question whose answer is well illuminated to the lay audience through potent dialogue, phenomenal vocals, and impactful action (fortunately for this psychotherapist and psychology professor, I needed no explanation). The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. These moods range from periods [generally seven days or more] of extremely “up,” elated, and energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to [periods of two weeks or more of all-encompassing and] very sad, “down,” or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). It is far from the typical “mood swings” of the average person and it requires psychiatric intervention to promote and maintain stability.
Despite these inherent and obvious challenges to the family dynamic, there is much more which also lies beneath the surface; the same sorts of things that at any given time, most of us feel in our own lives. This is a family dealing with issues of identity (“Superboy and the Invisible Girl”), complicated relationships, love (“Perfect for You”), loss (“How Could I Ever Forget?), and our personal pain. Diana struggles. Dan struggles. Natalie struggles. Gabe struggles. And each family member wrestles in their own way with the matriarch’s demons on their individual quests for normality amidst the psychological maelstrom.
An achingly mind-blowing performance by Christiane Noll as Diana brings to life the authenticity and at times powerfully disruptive nature of bipolar disorder, replete with all of her highs and lows as well as her unrelenting delusions and hallucinations. Doting and compassionate Dan played by an incredible David Harris fights to maintain some level of control, while at the same time bumbling, bedraggled, and broken by his wife’s crushing illness. Their marriage shows heavy wear and tear, its very foundation about to give out at any moment.
Maya Keleher already is a consummate performer, her youth notwithstanding. A recent BFA graduate of The Boston Conservatory she delivers a stellar performance as the angsty, angry Natalie who strives for perfection despite her life being a veritable pressure cooker about to explode. She leans on a phenomenal Nick Sacks (a recent Carnegie Mellon School of Drama grad) as the doting (like her father) paramour Henry who shows her that love can exist beyond flaws – and she tests this love to the max (not unlike her mother). John Cardoza as Gabe, also a graduate of The Boston Conservatory, is haunting in more ways than one; his intense performance sending shock waves through your gray matter. And last, but certainly not least is J.D. Daw as Doctor Fine/Doctor Madden. He is at times the voice of reason and at others, the very reason we may question the ethics in psychiatric treatment.
Next to Normal explores many of the essential elements of the human condition – and laughter is never far from tears (sometimes you may be doing both at the same time). In addition to the exquisite three-dimensionality of each of the carefully crafted characters, the story also is brought to life through incredible set design by Wilson Chin. A wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling series of cubicles, each is filled with some essential piece of the Goodman’s lives. It is a symbolic chronicle of their existence as a dynamic unit, with every item somehow both connected and disconnected to another, like the Goodman family members themselves. John Lasiter created the perfect mood through spot-on lighting design as did Ed Chapman with excellent sound design. Tricia Barsamian hit all the right notes with costume design; and speaking of notes, the fluidity of this production couldn’t have worked so seamlessly without Adam Souza’s musical direction of the live (but unseen) band; Souza conducts and is on piano; Celeste Cumming on cello; Anthony Galea on violin and keyboard; Billy Bivona on electric and acoustic guitar; Sean Rubin on electric and acoustic bass; and Dave Edricks on drums and percussion.
Intense and all-engulfing, Next to Normal draws you in and doesn’t let you go. My only complaint was that I didn’t want it to end. With each and every one of their thoughtfully chosen, poignant productions, TheaterWorks never, ever disappoints.
Hartford TheaterWorks’ Next to Normal is not even close to next to perfect – It IS a PERFECT piece of great theatre: an intense, searing portrayal of a family in crisis. It is so intimate, so authentic that one feels like a voyeur, brushing back the fourth wall as if it was a curtain or a trap door to spy on these characters’ lives. Indeed, in many ways, the play appeals to our darker – might I even say prurient (leaning more toward an unwholesome morbid curiosity rather than purely a sexual arousal) side? It is a train on the tracks, bound for a certain collision. We know it is going to happen, but we are transfixed by it, unable to look away, waiting for the inevitable. In many ways, it reminded me of the impactful “first” reality series in the 70s – An American Family which took us behind the scenes of the real-life Loud family.
The play defies categorization as anything but electrifying theatre. It’s classified as a “rock musical” with books and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, yet it as far from the genre of such rock musicals as Rock of Ages, Hair, Grease, etc. as the Himalayans are from my house. Despite its label, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Yet, again, to call it strictly a drama is like pounding a round peg into a square hole.
Oversimplifying, the play is about the effects of a family member’s mental illness on the rest of the household. But like the play’s inability to defy strict categorization, its plot and themes are like Shrek’s multi-layered onion analogy. The play also delves into subjects like loss, grief, love, the onus of caregiving, life and, of course, death. The music serves both to underscore and advance the multi-thematic nature of the story.
The acting is superb. Because this is a musical and a drama, the actors must be proficient in both and be able to belt out anything from a ballad to a rock tune while at the same time emoting with passion and verisimilitude. Director Rob Ruggiero has assembled such a multi-talented cast. Christiane Noll is wonderful as Diana, the matriarch of the family. She can elicit sympathy, admiration, and even pity at the turn of a hat. Watching her nuanced performance reminded me of the incredible portrayal given by the late Mary Tyler Moore when director Robert Redford casted her against type as the frigid, distant mother in the film Ordinary People. David Harris was Noll’s perfect complement as the loyal, and at times tortured, caregiving husband. Complete newcomer Maya Keleher was simply exquisite as Natalie, the put-upon daughter, coming of age in the shadow of her older brother’s legacy, settling for crumbs rather than real attention from her under siege parents. A special nod must go to J.D. Daw (Doctor Fine/Madden), whose comedic timing and “Elvis the Pelvis” moves (you just have to see it to understand) are standouts. Relative newcomer John Cardoza provides a haunting portrayal of Gabe, the favored older sibling. Last but not least, Nick Sacks displays a nice character arc as Natalie’s boyfriend, moving from pothead and hedonistic drug enabler to a caring, compassionate and even mature companion.
Next to Normal is a complex play to stage, much less to successfully pull off. Yet, TheaterWorks appears to do it with relative ease and aplomb. Much of the credit must go to Ruggierio. Directing stage musicals is an art onto itself just as directing dramas is an art onto itself. Sometimes the twain never meet. But here it absolutely does via the embodiment of a skillful director. Ruggiero is a talented, versatile director who is adept at both musicals and non-musicals alike. Next To Normal is a perfect vehicle for him to reach into his vast arsenal of directorial skills and select the most impactful and effective staging techniques (not to mention eliciting great performances from his uber-talented cast).
Kudos also must go to musical director Adam Souza and set designer Wilson Chin.
Hartford TheaterWorks’ is next to impossible not put on your bucket list of must-sees!