‘Next to Normal’ at The Vagabond Players by Amanda Gunther


Define normal. Everyone thinks it is the standard by which we compare how well our lives are going, but it turns out when you look at what’s ‘normal’ you’ll find that it is rarity — most people’s family lives are rather abnormal, dysfunctional even. This modern take on the classical format of a Rock Opera will leave your notions of normal thrown to the wayside as The Vagabond Players moves through their 97th season with Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. A stunning emotionally charged rock opera, this show will bring tears to your eyes by the end of it all; a powerful sensation that wakes up the audience with its in-your-face reality of how life really is.

(l to r) Chris Jehnert, Shannon Wollman, and Darren McDonnell. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Directed by Eric J. Potter with Musical Direction by Douglas Lawler, this astonishing moving musical closely examines how one person’s dysfunction can sink an entire family; in the family dynamic one major episode can rock the members of the family the way violent ripples radiate across a pond’s surface when a stone is thrown into it. Lawler’s years of musical expertise is well showcased in these six talented singers; all of whom bring perfect pitch, brilliant vocal projection, amazing harmonies, and breath-taking pure song qualities to this show.

The music tells a story; the six characters its vessel of transport, and each person takes a major role in this performance, emoting to the audience with their eyes, their bodies, and above all their voices. The story revolves around the mother’s worsening bi-polar disorder and the effects that has on her family. The musical also deals with the heavy issues of grieving loss, suicide, drug abuse, and ethical morality in modern psychiatric treatment.

The opening of the show is a strong number that showcases the four members of the family, “Just Another Day,” clearly displaying a family that just goes through the emotions without attaching to one another in the normal way. It creates a beautiful four part harmony when Diana’s character joins in; making this sound that radiates out over the audience and bring them into the show.

The character we see the least of is Henry (Jim Baxter) being the on-again off-again boyfriend of mildly bad influence for Natalie. Baxter’s stage presence is clearly noted by his vagrant costuming and his general laid back gestures and attitude. His duets with Natalie are warm and inviting as well as hard and driving. “Perfect For You” becomes this sweet signature number for him to showcase his feelings. And when he leads “Hey #1” trying to further express those feelings toward her, he becomes a subtly passionate creature with deeper emotions than his exterior ever lets on.

Tom Burns and Shannon Wollman. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Another lesser seen character but is no less talented or vocally amazing is the Doctor (Tom Burns). Showcasing his wide range of vocal styles, from loud head-banger rock in “Doctor Rock” where he becomes a modern day Elvis rock star for moments of this number to his more subdued but serene sounds in “Seconds and Years” and “Better Than Before.” Burns’ character has a realistic optimism about him; not too high in the clouds but not depressive either. His role in the show is the dynamic push for the major changes in the family’s life; and his pure plain speaking voice for words and moments unsung is the most clear of the performers.

Gabe (Chris Jehnert) proves a powerful existence on the stage. His solo “I’m Alive” brough tears to my eyes and members of the audience; sung with a forceful passion that wakes you up and makes you recognize the reality of the family’s situation. Jehnert moves with the ease of a shadow when he dances about on the stage and he is a sparking catalyst for almost everyone — especially Diana. His duet with Diana, “I Dreamed A Dance” is a moment of pure tear-jerking sorrow, and during “I Am The One (Reprise)” with Dan, that same awestruck feeling of overwhelming sadness permeates his voice. Jehnert is a powerful singer with a great vocal range, and a breathtaking performer.

Playing opposite of Gabe’s character is Natalie (Julia Capizzi) who is as expressive as her voice is beautiful. A songbird incarnate, Capizzi showcases a range of sounds that would make a mockingbird cry out in elation. The ever-shifting relationship she shares with her mother, Diana, and her father, Dan, creates a dynamic character for Capizzi; coupled with the burgeoning youthful romance between her and Henry, making her the most versatile character on stage in regards to relationships. “Super Boy and The Invisible Girl” gives her the chance to express her inner most feelings, each note a stunning blast of emotion; coupled by perfect accompanying harmonies from both Henry and Gabe in this number. Capizzi’s eyes captivate the audience, drawing your attention every time she’s on stage and her angelic voice can easily be plucked out in any of the group numbers; a miraculous talent for such a young performer.

The driving forces behind the shows motivations and movements come from Dan (Darren McDonnell) and Diana (Shannon Wollman). Singing many duets together, and often singing at one another, the pair create sensational moments on stage as they work through the motions of a normal marriage that is anything but normal. There are moments when they are singing to each other’s souls without even seeing one another; Wollman’s fiery fierce balled of “You Don’t Know” charged with a ferocious heat, her internal pain spewing out directly at him. And McDonnell’s response in the song “I Am The One” with an equally forceful expression of his love and devotion to her, despite her being on the bewildering brink of insanity.

McDonnell’s part in the act one finale duet “A Light In The Dark” encourages hope, with his pristine voice and his powerful volume control, while Wollman’s role here projects the opposite, desperately clinging to that hope he’s projecting. The pair are beyond sensational and rival the Broadway performers from this musicals debut. Wollman’s belting voice overtakes many of her songs becoming the most convincing and raw portrayal of emotions in this production, and when she exudes grief and woe the audience is drawn in so strongly that there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Nobody’s life is normal, and this production easily proves just how not normal we all are. The Vagabond Players’ exceptional Next To Normal is a compelling and moving musical drama that should be seen by all; experienced by everyone, and at the end, you will go home realizing that sometimes having ‘next to normal’ is perfectly.

Top: Darren McDonnell and Julia Capizzi. Bottom: Shannon Wollman and Chris Jehnert. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.

Next To Normal plays through November 25, 2012 at The Vagabond Players located in the heart of Fells Point at 806 South Broadway, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.

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