“Next to Normal”
TheaterWorks should be congratulated for taking on a musical as demanding as “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize winning work by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Focusing on how a family deals with mental illness, this show pulls no punches, and the score is almost operatic in scale. Also, the original Broadway production featured a three tiered set, something that the small stage at TheaterWorks couldn’t begin to approximate. Finally, the original “Next to Normal” spotlighted one of the most unforgettable and iconic performances I have ever witnessed, Alice Ripley in the central role of Diana Goodman.
It is happy news that I can say that, even if the TheaterWorks production didn’t completely erase the original production from my mind, it still does full justice to this musical. Starring the wonderful Christiane Noll as Diana, she is superbly matched by the five other actors in this show. As stated, this is quite a musical to take on and director Rob Ruggiero is able to make “Next to Normal” work very well in a small theatre.
It must be stated, though, that as much as I love “Next to Normal,” seeing this musical in such an intimate venue can make the plot seem a little heavy, a feeling I did not experience in the original Broadway production. Still, if you can go with this show, and the difficult journey that it takes, this “Next to Normal” at TheaterWorks can be both rewarding and cathartic.
Any production of “Next to Normal” carries the burden of finding the right actress to take on the role of Diana Goodman. Fortunately, TheaterWorks has found the ideal performer in Christiane Noll. I was lucky enough to see Noll three times in the original Broadway production of “Jekyll and Hyde” and she was also terrific in the Encores! staging of the operetta, “The New Moon.” If Noll doesn’t quite have the belty qualities that Alice Ripley brought to this character’s music, Noll’s handles the vocal demands with great finesse. This actress especially shines in “I Miss the Mountains” and her acting is excellent, with her work here being moving and memorable.
Playing the role of Dan, Diana’s husband, David Harris is just terrific, and he is easily able to scale the highs and the lows that this character goes through, and his singing is ideal throughout. As their daughter Natalie, Maya Keleher is able to capture both the frustrations of her character and the glimmer of hope that resides just under the surface. As Gabe, John Cardoza is handsome and talented and he has a spectacular voice, especially in his recurring solo, “I’m Alive.” In supporting roles, Nick Sacks is quite good as Henry, Natalie’s sweet, stoner boyfriend and J. D. Daw portrays his dual roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden adeptly.
Scenic designer Wilson Chin has designed a functional, colorful set, with various playing areas for the performers, and John Lasiter’s lighting design is appropriately evocative and fits each scene perfectly. Also, music director Adam Souza leads a rocking, off stage band sensationally. Indeed, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s rock/operatic score is delivered as strongly here as it was when I saw the original Broadway production in 2009.
Director Rob Ruggiero makes all the right moves with “Next to Normal,” and I especially like that he has the actors enter from the aisles of the theatre when they are not onstage. This feeling of intimacy in the show only adds to the poignancy of this musical’s depiction of a family trying to navigate the demands of dealing with mental illness. As stated, this “Next to Normal” at TheaterWorks can almost feel like too much, at times, but, ultimately, this production rises to the challenge of giving new life to this important musical.
“Next to Normal” continues performances at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through May 7, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.
Photo: (L-R): David Harris, Christiane Noll, and Maya Keleher
Photo by Lanny Nagler