“Next to Normal”
Westport Country Playhouse
Westport Country Playhouse is currently presenting a flat-out electrifying production of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Next to Normal.” With a phenomenal cast and a rocking band, this show is a triumph. Thrillingly directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana, this production takes a little while to fully take hold, but, once it does, the results are astonishing. A key factor in this staging of “Next to Normal” being so extraordinary is the sensational performance by Dar. Lee. See. Ah. in the role of Diana. This actress leads a flawless company of performers, all of whom match her brilliance every step of the way. Westport Country Playhouse’s “Next to Normal” is a definite must and one of the most emotionally involving productions you will ever see.
It’s nothing new to say that “Next to Normal” is an excellent musical. Having seen the show on Broadway and then, a few years ago, at TheaterWorks Hartford, this is a musical which, when done right, always satisfies. Yet, there is something extra special about this current production. Perhaps, it is the decision to present a racially diverse cast in this staging which makes the effect of the musical seem so fresh and newly-minted. Whatever it is, all the elements come together astoundingly and this production holds the audience in a vice-like grip as it explores a family facing mental illness, with all the difficulties and after-shocks fully apparent. This is not to say that the show is in any way depressing or too downbeat—instead this “Next to Normal” has the opposite effect of being exhilarating and a real revelation.
Chief among its assets is Dar. Lee. See. Ah. (sometimes billed as Darlesia Cearcy) as Diana Goodman. At first, it almost seems like this actress is too strong for this role, having seen more outward vulnerability in the character in previous productions. However, this performer knows exactly what she is doing: by her character seeming so together and in control at the start of the show, Diana’s breakdown provides an even more crushing and devastating effect. Dar. Lee. See. Ah. possesses a powerhouse voice, and she rides the waves of this rock opera’s difficult and rangy music seemingly effortlessly. Indeed, this actress somehow elevates the role of Diana to a near operatic stature. This is one performance you will truly want to experience.
But there is so much more to recommend about this production. Wilson Jermaine Heredia is amazing as Diana’s husband, Dan, and he, too, possess a formidable singing voice. Having seen Heredia’s Tony-winning performance as Angel in the original production of “Rent,” this actor’s talent is not surprising. Still, Heredia is almost on a whole other level now, portraying a father and husband so effectively. As Diana and Dan’s daughter, Natalie, Ashley LaLonde is fantastic and heartbreaking and she is able to portray so many different emotions all at once. As her boyfriend, Henry, Gian Perez is sweet-natured and touching and he brings a welcome aspect of levity to the overwhelming power of this show.
It’s interesting that the role of the psychiatrist, originally cast as male, is now being played by a woman, Katie Thompson. This gender-switch actually adds layers to the relationship between the doctor and Diana, and Thompson gives a warm and superb performance. As the character of Gabe, who is constantly moving around Adam Koch’s visually stunning, multi-level set, Daniel J. Maldonado brings another powerful voice to the production and he possesses an almost other-worldly presence.
Of course, without a good director at the helm, none of these performances would be possible or blend together as well as they do. Marcos Santana’s work as director/choreographer is pretty monumental, and he also works terrifically with his design team, namely costume designer Jen Caprio and lighting designer Cory Pattak, whose contributions are truly superior. And it must be mentioned that the awesome music director Emily Croome leads an extraordinary orchestra, rocking the show from beginning to end.
“Next to Normal” can be a difficult musical to fully absorb. It is messy and disturbing and it brings up a plethora of emotions that an audience might not want to confront. Still, Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “Next to Normal” pulsates with vitality and empathy for its characters and it is quite an exciting theatrical experience. By all means, get tickets for this amazing production of “Next to Normal” at Westport Country Playhouse, and it is highly recommended to bring tissues with you, as well.
“Next to Normal” runs through April 24, 2022, at Westport Country Playhouse, in Westport, CT. For information and tickets, please visit www.westportplayhouse.org
Photo: Dar. Lee. See. Ah. and Wilson Jermaine Heredia
Photo by Carol Rosegg