MIDVALE — Back in 2009, I was rooting for the brand new rock musical Next to Normal to win the Tony award for Best Musical. Unfortunately, that same year the powerhouse show Billy Elliot also opened on Broadway and walked away with the Tony (and deserved it just as much). Nonetheless, Next to Normal was nominated for eleven Tony awards (winning three—Best Original Score, Best Orchestration, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical) and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010. The contemporary musical tells the story of the Goodman family coping with mother and wife Diana’s deteriorating bipolar disorder and perpetual grief. The show covers some heavy issues including drug abuse, suicide, grief, depression, mental instability, and more.
A word about the Midvale Main Street Theater: the space is striking. I can imagine some really memorable shows being created there. Their classy marquee welcomes you as you walk toward the Main Street Theater. Once inside, you sit at a table and for some reason feel like the entire space is a stage. Somehow you sitting at that table becomes just as important as anything that happens under the lights. This isn’t a typical auditorium-like theater. The room is full of tables and chairs; the ceiling is decorated and surprises you when you look up. (Oh, and be sure to check out the bathroom. You won’t be sorry.) The stage’s upper balconies stretch out over the audience, and the entire effect is a reminder of the magic of live theater. You feel like anything is possible here.
Next to Normal is a mature show, both in content and in what it requires of actors. It’s not a show be approached lightly. It’s the kind of show that teaches you something every time you see it, and the night I saw the Midvale production was no exception. The music is captivating and the story hits so close to home for many people that’s it’s practically impossible not to be entranced, regardless of the quality of the production. With that said, there is a certain rhythm and maturity that just wasn’t present at the Midvale production. I commend Midvale Main Street Theater for mounting such a powerful, profound show, but it was a bit too hefty for them. There were countless moments of huge significance that were either glazed over or ignored altogether. From the direction to the acting to the design, there lacked a clear grasp of the story being told.
The cast was obviously chosen for their voices. Sara McDonald as Diana Goodman, Aaron Ford as Gabe Goodman, Mason Holmstead as Henry, and Dustin Bolt as Dan had gorgeous voices that fit their characters well. The biggest problem with many of the actors was that they approached situations too lightly. They often played characters without depth or apparent emotional progress. There was no arc, no character development, and few discoveries. Most of the time it felt as if actors were just trying to get through the dialogue and to the next song, especially in Act 1. The story was tragically neglected. What I saw onstage was mostly high school level acting, meaning there was potential there but also plenty of learning to do. For example, at the end of the highly emotional song, “Maybe,” the characters suddenly seemed cheerful as if they’d forgotten all that had happened and the words they had just sung. The audience needs to understand the reason for emotional change. It can’t come out of thin air. Bolt was the exception; his choices were clear, human, mature, and relateable. Bolt’s portrayal of Dan, the father and husband, was the unmistakable standout of the evening. I was sad for Dan’s trials throughout the show and empathized with his choices the most. He was the only one onstage who understood the story’s gravity. Not only that, but his musical theater training was obvious as he made steady, thoughtful character choices.
Many of the acting inadequacies surely came from incomplete direction. For one thing, the show’s world was entirely unclear. Yes, the set, designed by director Tammy Ross, was clearly the interior of a house, complete with kitchen, bathroom, a bedroom, and an attic, but the world wasn’t fully defined beyond that. For example, I was continually confused at why some moments that were supposed to be stylized and more “dreamlike” were entirely too understated and why some characters would come on or leave through a certain entrance. Why did Natalie just go into the bathroom? Why did Diana just exit into the kitchen? Why wasn’t the attic used more? Why did Gabe come from Natalie’s room? It was confusing. Much of the design also lacked focus. Lighting choices were often misplaced and the music itself sounded like a mishmash of karaoke, midi files, and recorded tracks. The overall effect was very distracting and continually brought me out of the story.
The biggest disappointment came from what I’m going to simply call the “big revelation.” Or rather the disappointment came because there wasn’t a big revelation. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s this moment in Act 1 when all the sudden everyone realizes what is really happening and it changes everything. That is the moment when an audience member will become entirely sucked into the story; it’s the point of no return. Unfortunately, the moment came and went in Midvale’s production without even a second for the audience to grasp what had just happened. The actors sped through the lines to jump into the next song and completely missed what is one of the most shocking moments in the show. I recommend in future performances that the actors give the audience a moment, a beat, a second to catch up with the action. The power of an onstage pause cannot be overstated. Please, please consider fixing this. It would make your story much stronger.
There is some definite potential at the Midvale Main Street Theater, and that’s why I’ve chosen to include so much criticism in this review. They’ve got a great space and some real talent in the area. I look forward to seeing shows that spend much more time on the acting and the story being told. Next to Normal is, and will always be, a phenomenal piece of theater. If only to get exposure to this gorgeous and moving show, get to Midvale.
NOTE: There is strong language and adult themes; this isn’t a show for your little kids.