OGDEN — The Ziegfeld Theater’s production of Next to Normal (music by Tom Kitt; books and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) has set the bar very high for theater in 2013. It was just so incredible that it seems unlikely that any other production this year will come close to matching the talent of its cast and the power of its material.
I walked into this show blind, with no foreknowledge of the plot whatsoever. All I knew was that it had something to do with a family—which could describe a lot of plays. Then the live band (led by pianist and pit conductor JD Dumas) and the cast began the song, “Just Another Day.” That one musical number was all it took to grip me, and from there to the end, I was hanging on every word. Basically, Next to Normal is the intimate portrayal of Diana, a woman whose struggle with bipolar disorder is openly portrayed with an honest look at the effect it has on her family. Though the thematic material of the musical is definitely mature, it is a subject that touches most people all in one form or another—whether because they have a loved one who suffers from mental illness or they are a sufferer themself. But thanks to a brilliant script and hugely talented performers, this production of Next to Normal is heavy without feeling burdensome and entertaining but without being cute. It’s the kind of production that makes theater enlightening and engaging, rather than simply mindless entertainment.
Adding to the intimate feel of the material, there are only characters in the play: Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden (Austin Archer), Henry (Jason Baldwin), Natalie (Jenessa Bowen), Dan (Aaron Cole), Gabe (Luke Monday), and Diana (Emilie Starr). Each cast member deserves major applause for their honest, raw delivery of emotional highs and lows in both their acting and singing. Next to Normal is extremely difficult material to tackle because of the range required emotionally and vocally. While some productions may sacrifice one for the other—a great actor with a so-so voice or an amazing vocalist whose acting falls flat—the Ziegfeld Theater’s cast members to a person are masters of both acting and singing.
Without giving too much of the show away, a few performance highlights were Austin Archer’s dancing in “My Psychopharmacologist and I” as Dr. Fine—awkward in such a delightful, intentionally nerdy way. Also noteworthy was Luke Monday’s killer, rock god-worthy rendition of “I’m Alive,” an insanely catchy tune that is still stuck in my head. And Emilie Starr’s emotional power and honesty were present in every moment she had on stage, particularly during the breathtaking, “I Miss the Mountains” and emotionally charged, “You Don’t Know.” And whenever the entire ensemble (or even more than two of them) sang together, I got goosebumps every time.
Technically, everything worked well and complimented the production. The set, designed by director Rick Rea, was simple—the interior of a home—but subtly changed as the plot unfolded, reflecting the mindset of the characters at various moments. Costumes were what one would expect each character to wear in everyday life; and elements such as lighting and sound design while not overly noteworthy, enhanced the show through their consistency and quality.
This show does have an unfortunate downside that will keep some potential audience members away—swearing. The profanity, which included several “f” words, never felt forced or ostentatious to me; it was included in the script to sound the way a stressed family might express themselves. However, I’m sad to say that though this show was phenomenal and I highly recommend it, if conversational swearing offends your sensibilities, you may want to sit this one out.
The strong language aside, Next to Normal was a welcome beginning to what I hope will be a great year of theater. It had so many elements that make theater great—unique perks such as the live band and the great acoustics of the Ziegfeld Theater. The show’s performers have oceans of talent that give it all in their performances, and the theatrical material touched my heart deeplyl. My recommendation: start your year off right like I did and catch Next to Normal. I can guarantee that it will be a show that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.