OREM — Next to Normal is a show I’ve seen many times. It has its own place in my heart, nestled next to my favorite plays and musicals. The show has power and depth and meat; it isn’t the run-of-the-mill flashy Broadway musical. After opening on Broadway in 2009, Next to Normal (with music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. It deals with themes of grief, mental illness, and a difficult reality that many 21st century families have to live with.
The musical shows a few months of the lives of the Goodman family as they deal with the seemingly-mysterious mental illness of Diana, the family’s mother and wife. Originally diagnosed as bipolar disorder, they soon wonder if there’s much more to her suffering. The show doesn’t answer every question and it isn’t always clear where right and wrong are, but it addresses some difficult topics in a poignant and sincere way.
UVU’s production featured an industrial-inspired set with spots that became a family kitchen, bathroom, front door, etc. I loved the way the lighting design, by Michael Gray, and the set (design by Daniel Whiting) complemented each other to suggest location and tone. Little set changes happened from scene to scene, but there was never a question of where we were, whether in the Goodman’s home, at school, or at a doctor’s office.
I saw the show opening night, so I would imagine most of the problems I saw will fix themselves as the actors get used to performing the piece in front of an audience. The show started off rather slow, with a few chaotic kinks during the opening song, but the pacing and the emotion picked up with each scene. By the end, I was floored with some of the intense emotional moments and brilliant acting from the entire cast.
Jacquelyne Jones’s performance as Diana may make her my favorite Diana (and I saw original Broadway cast member Alice Ripley back in 2010), and her voice was skillfully breathtaking. Jones’s songs were all gorgeous, but her character became more and more interesting and complex and intriguing as the night went on. “Didn’t I See This Movie?” had the perfect amount of intensity and fear and realness, and “So Anyway” was beyond heartbreaking. Benjamin J. Henderson had a different, much more emotional, and at times even angry approach to Dan. His aggressive moments made his most vulnerable much more meaningful. There was this one moment that Diana and Dan shared in Act 2 during “How Could I Ever Forget” when much of the audience was in tears (based on the number of sniffles), and I was mesmerized, also on the brink of tears. The song was blocked simply, with each actor sitting on the staircase at varying heights, while Gabe looked on from below. It created such a pure picture of grief and despair. The two actors sung about 80% of the song without moving, and it was striking. That moment will stay with me for a while.
Zoe Wilde as daughter Natalie found the true teenager in every line, something I haven’t seen other actresses do with that role. There were countless moments when she said or sung a few words and I was struck with how genuine the sentiment was. The representation of complicated, confused teenagers everywhere is safe in the capable hands of Wilde. Topher Rasmussen played a subdued but ominous Gabe. At times I wished he would had more confidence and control in a scene—such as during his first big song, “I’m Alive”—but that may have been opening night jitters. Other moments, like “There’s a World” were chilling (in an appropriate way). Each production of Next to Normal approaches Gabe differently; UVU’s found me missing Gabe’s presence on stage quite a bit. The show seems to be about the fact that he’s present in the lives of this family, yet he seemed to come onstage just long enough to sing a few bars or deliver a line and then disappear again. The few moments when he lingered to wordlessly interact with characters, to affect their lives, or even to simply observe were some of my favorite. I wanted more!
Andrew Robertson and Jacob Theo Squire as Henry and Dr. Madden, respectively, rounded out the solid UVU cast. Each played their supporting roles adeptly. Henry was endearing and earnest; Dr. Madden played confident and hopeful. The acting all around was impressive. Every actor proved they could hit their notes and sing their parts, but I loved that they let the emotion and the acting take center stage. In the most emotional moments, the performers let their voices break or notes slide to convey what they were feeling. While Next to Normal contains some really brilliant music, it’s always seemed to me that the acting should be the most important part. UVU’s production let the acting reign supreme, and I really appreciated that.
And the music! A live band played onstage and was not at all distracting. The music never upstaged or drowned out the actors, which is rare. My compliments to UVU for that one.
Without spoiling anything, there’s one other moment I want to highlight: There’s this part at the end of the show when Natalie comes home to find Dan sitting just inside the house and they have this simple interaction brimming with subtext. Wilde and Henderson performed that scene like I’ve never seen it. It was raw and real and heartbreaking and hopeful, all at the same time. I was floored.
So should you go see UVU’s Next to Normal? I’m going to start by saying, “YES. Yes you should.” But here are some more specifics: As for content, the show includes some heavy moments: drug use, grief, allusions to suicide, mental illness, mature themes, and some language. This may not be the show to bring young kids to. As with any play, potential audience members should do their research.
In the end, the production stayed with me. I’m still reeling from some of the profound moments I witnessed in the Noorda. Thanks to director Dave Tinney, cast members, production team, crew, and all involved for helping me see a beloved show in a new light.
Next to Normal plays Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM through November 23, with a 2pm matinee on Nov. 23, in The Noorda Theatre on the campus of Utah Valley University. Tickets are $8-12. For more information visit uvu.edu/theatre.