"Next to Normal is Next to Perfect

By Geary Danihy 

Let’s say it right up front -- if you are currently feeling down, depressed or generally out of psychic sorts, then you might want to put off seeing “Next to Normal” up at TheaterWorks in Hartford. Just wait until the clouds roll by and then pick up the phone and order tickets -- don’t worry, it’s been extended through May 7, so you’ve got time. Why put it off if the Blue Meanies are nipping at your heels? Well, this Pulitzer-winning musical ain’t “Mary Poppins,” and the angst and mental derangements suffered by Diana (the marvelous Christiane Noll) can’t be cured by a spoonful of sugar.

“Next to Normal,” with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, opened on Broadway in 2009, receiving three Tony awards. It’s a “tough” musical, for it deals with a disturbingly dysfunctional family: the aforementioned Diana has been in therapy, and consuming a potpourri of psychotropic medications, for close to two decades. She is manic, she is depressive, and she is haunted. Her much put upon husband, Dan (a sturdy David Harris) copes as best he can with a family life that is ruled more by fantasy than familiarity, much to the detriment of Diana and Dan’s daughter, Natalie (Maya Keleher, giving a stunning professional debut performance), who is, in the words of a First-Act song, the “invisible girl.”

Whirling around this tornado of delusions and frustrations directed by Rob Ruggiero are Henry (Nick Sacks), Natalie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, and two of Diana’s therapists, Doctor Fine and Doctor Madden (both played by J. D. Daw). And then there is the son, Gabe, who in another First-Act song proclaims “I’m Alive.” That remains to be seen.

Backed by a six-member orchestra sequestered off-stage, and played out on an adaptive set by Wilson Chin with multiple bookcases boasting a host of lamps and knick-knacks, this two-act excursion into dementia and family heartbreak is not exactly sung-through, but the production consists of many songs – 38 to be exact – that seem to weave into and out of each other almost seamlessly.

At times bewildered, at other times wry and waspish, Noll’s Diana is a study of an intelligent woman bedeviled by her mind. It’s a bravura performance in a difficult role, for it demands a broad range of emotions to be displayed, some subtle, others over-the-top (we first see Diana making lunch for her two-member family by slamming together sandwiches using both the counter and the floor as workplaces). Noll is capable of saying volumes with her eyes, her shoulders and just a twist of her lips, and her vocal range allows her to handle such diverse songs as the manic “Didn’t I See This Movie,” the intimate duet, “Maybe,” with Keleher, and Diana’s touching farewell “So Anyway.”

Harris, as Dan, is the rock upon which Diana’s waves of dementia pound. His role is, obviously, less flamboyant than Noll’s, but he creates a character that is trembling on the brink of despair, and thus his performance if often haunting, no more so than in his rendition of “He’s Not Here.”

Cardoza and Sacks both give solid performances, though one might question the costumes Tricia Barsamian has created for Sacks, especially the brown suit he shows up in to take Natalie to a dance, making him look more like an émigré fresh off the boat than a suitor seeking his fair love’s hand. Daw is also solid, and his brief metamorphosis as the “rock star” doctor is dead on.

Then there is Keleher, who is making her professional debut, though you wouldn’t know it by her performance. This sweet-voiced graduate of The Boston Conservatory delivers a polished, nuanced portrait of a frustrated 17-year-old who dabbles in drugs in an attempt to handle the chaos of her home life.

Given the intimacy of the TheaterWorks venue, the emotions generated by “Next to Normal” wash over the audience in successive waves that evoke laughter, shivers, empathy…and, in the final number, “Light,” a measure of hope. There is a reason why this musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is a gripping portrait of a family in crisis that can’t help but resonate with the audience.

“Next to Normal” has been extended through May 7. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

 

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