If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

 

“Next to Normal” Memorable in Westport

 

The Pulitzer Prize winning “Next To Normal” is scheduled for at least four Connecticut productions this season and the Music Theatre of Connecticut in Westport is one of the first to take on the challenges of this memorable work. That they succeed is credit to a plucky theatre company that has learned to take chances and come up roses. “Next to Normal” may be the single best production I’ve ever seen at this theatre.

 

With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, “Next to Normal” is a difficult but vividly emotional musical experience about a woman’s long journey through mental illness and the family that is caught in the fallout. In the mostly sung production, Diana Goodman (a simply wonderful Juliet Lambert Pratt) is barely surviving day-by-day haunted by grief over the death of her young son, Gabe. Her husband (Will Erat, pitch perfect) loves his wife but is conflicted as he struggles to keep peace between Diana and his resentful teenage daughter, Natalie (Elissa DeMaria). Acting out, sad and confused, Natalie finds comfort in Henry (an appealing Jacob Heimer), a stoner and fellow student at her high school. Still very much alive, at least in Diana’s mind, is Gabe (the dynamic Logan Hart) who lends the musical a touching pathos.

 

“Next to Normal” looks at mental illness, the meaning of family, symptom vs. cure and the definition of sanity with clear eyes, wit and warmth. The musical lives and breathes humanity and the music never sentimentalizes or exploits the situation. It is nothing if not honest and with a vocally strong company it sounds terrific in MTC’s intimate, 45-seat theatre. Ms. Pratt is powerfully convincing as a woman on the edge and her soaring vocals provide the requisite chills. Even better may be Mr. Erat whose smooth, beautiful voice is matched by a richly sensitive performance in a tricky role. Gifted musical director David Wolfson, who also plays keyboard, is aided immeasurably by band members Chris Johnson (drums), Dan Asher (bass) and David Coe (guitar).

 

The technical issues at MTC, however, do remain. With material so good and a company this strong (it includes the splendid Tommy Foster who plays two of Diana’s doctors), one wishes that John Anselmo’s lighting could have more focus and precision and that Nicholas Schwartz’s scenic design wasn’t so rudimentary and sloppy (some of the edges on the flats went unpainted). The nearly claustrophobic MTC still resembles a dingy basement from the 1970s at times and with uneven sight lines director Kevin Connors hasn’t always found a smooth way to stage musicals in this challenging space.

 

Still, let’s give credit where credit is due. This is a superb contemporary piece with a top-notch company of actors doing it proud. If you are not moved to tears by the harmonious, uplifting “Light” at the musical’s finale, you have ice water in your veins. “Next to Normal” is really something rare and special.

 

“Next to Normal” continues at Westport’s Music Theatre of Connecticut through November 4. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.

 

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.



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