SALT LAKE CITY —When I first heard that Next to Normal was going to be presented by the Pioneer Theater Company, I was so excited that my newest Broadway obsession would be presented in Utah. I was also very glad that PTC would put it on, knowing they had the means to utilize great actors and production quality for this Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning piece.
Perhaps what is most refreshing about this musical is that it boldly faces issues head on and does not sugarcoat anything. While Next to Normal still has wonderful moments of comedy and spectacle, none of it is lost on these real people and their real emotions and problems. There are no epic events, or giant company dance numbers – only the powerful everyday familial interactions that are so often closed behind the deceiving façades of our homes’ exteriors.
Next to Normal is about as recent a transplant from Broadway as possible – opening on Broadway in April 2009 and closing January 2011. The intimate cast of six characters details the life of the Goodman family – Diana, Daniel and their teenage daughter Natalie. Not enough can be said about Judy McLane’s portrayal of the bi-polar matriarch, Diana. She carefully wove the balance between the depressed, the manic, the imaginative, and the normal that this character must switch between instantly. Jonathan Rayson as Dan and Ephie Aardema as Natalie strongly filled out the family showing the worn out father and the oft neglected and rebellious daughter. Both actors lovingly created characters that have to deal with such a broad range of emotions, as Diana’s illness suddenly throws their world from one extreme to another. Matt Dengler did very well as the ethereal Gabe who exerts his presence in Diana’s life and indirectly disrupts Dan and Natalie’s as well. Ben Crawford was very entertaining Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden and was particularly enjoyable as he switched seamlessly from reserved professional to Diana’s “scary rock-star” delusion of him. Alex Brightman as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend, created an entertaining, soft-spoken stoner. All of them handled the mostly rock score with powerful voices that were comfortable in their range and only one or two minor exceptions that never truly detracted from the feel of the show.
The set design by George Maxwell created a great world for the actors to play in, seamlessly shifting between the Goodmans’ two story house that resembles many houses in my own suburban neighborhood and the doctor’s office or school locations as needed. This was especially complimented with the lighting design by Michael Gilliam. Projected onto the backdrop showing identical homes down a street, he created wonderful sunsets relating to the current mood of the characters. He also created the delusional moments of Diana, including Dr. Madden’s psychedelic lighting for his rock star moments, and touching additions like the soft reflections from Gabe’s music box during “I Dreamed a Dance.” I particularly liked the image as the scrim painted façades of the house would show the hidden Gabe when his image was being repressed songs such as “Aftershocks.”
This was brought together under the effective direction of Karen Azenberg. She very carefully used the blocking to create the relationships between all these characters naturally. She adeptly worked around the how the unreal Gabe moved among the family, especially before we know he is only a delusion of Diana’s mind. Perhaps my favorite stage image was comparing and contrasting the lives of Dan and Diana with Natalie and Henry during “A Promise.” This powerfully demonstrated how Natalie and Henry are coming together in love, but Dan and Diana are now separating farther apart.
Next to Normal is a musical that uses all the power of music and words to tell an important story without being cheesy. What words alone can’t express, the music expresses and is never used inappropriately. It was wonderful to take a moment of my life and see how others might be living that I don’t know about, but also relate it to myself. I have a 10-month-old son, so I felt remorse for this family, who had lost one so close in age, and I wondered how my wife and I would cope with such a traumatic experience. I am also sure that those who know people with bipolar disorder or similar mental illnesses appreciated a story being honestly portrayed in this medium. It is a fantastic piece of art that deserves our attention. It also encourages us to look behind our own walls of our homes often with tears in our eyes and then say with hope, “There will be light.”
Audience members are advised that Next to Normal contains strong language and mature themes (including suicide and drug use).