Next to Normal is the story of the Goodman family as they try to survive despite the fact that things are not normal, or even close to normal. It is a story of love, loss, commitment, worth, survival, and hope in the face of darkness. It is a compelling story about what it means to be alive and I strongly recommend that you see the McLean Community Players’ production of this show that won three 2009 Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is truly outstanding.
As the show opens, we meet the Goodmans who appear to be a typical suburban family. Mom Diana (Nicky McDonnell) worries about her son (Nick DuPré) who has missed curfew and her snarky, overachieving teenage daughter (Catherine Callahan) who is anxiously studying late into the night. Finally, her husband (Brent Stone) persuades her to return to bed. The next morning, though, we learn that things are not normal in the Goodman home as Diana prepares sandwiches, not on the kitchen counter, but on the floor. It seems she has suffered from bipolar disorder coupled with hallucinations for more than sixteen years. Her illness, with its manic highs and miserable lows, has taken a toll on the entire family and we see how it effects each one in diverse ways.
Be advised, however. Next to Normal will surprise you as it tackles its themes in an unexpected style…as a rock musical. With little spoken dialogue, the musical could be dreadful in the wrong hands but Brian Yorkey, (author of book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music composer) have handled the topic of mental illness with intellect, artistry, and sensitivity. And don’t let the show’s “rock” label turn you off. There is a range of musical styles that include both driving beats as well as haunting ballads. The cast was especially clear in articulating the song lyrics so we can easily follow the story.
In fact, the entire cast is superb. Ms. McDonnell is mesmerizing in the role of the mother – Diana. From the first moment, we are drawn to her and ache for her pain. Through her, we are frustrated with a medical system that seems incapable of successfully treating her tragic illness. As Diana tells her daughter that she loves her as best she can, we see how much she wants to be able to give her daughter a more normal life. She is aware of how life can change in a moment and the best she can do in committing to attend her daughter’s piano recital is to say, “Put it on the calendar.” The expressive McDonnell is able to communicate a world of emotion through the slightest tip of the head or the smallest wince. She is at her best as she sings “I Miss the Mountains,” declaring her desire to go off her medications so she can feel something again.
A newcomer to community theater, Nick DuPré plays the Goodman’s son Gabe. It is Mr. DuPré’s first role of this size and he is to be congratulated on his achievement in creating a complex, three-dimensional character who is, at the same time, his mother’s confidant and adversary. DuPré’s singing is strong and riveting, especially as he demands to be acknowledged in “I’m Alive.”
Brent Stone plays Dan, the father, who is trying to keep the family together, yet seems so disconnected from his own life. In the song “Who’s Crazy,” Mr. Stone brings a vulnerability and poignancy as he asks, “Who’s crazy, the husband or wife? Who’s crazy to live their whole life believing that somehow things aren’t as bizarre as they are? Who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope? Or maybe, the one who’ll still hope?”
As the Goodman’s smart, musically talented daughter Natalie, Catherine Callahan inhabits the role of the teenager who is, despite her academic and musical achievements, invisible to her parents. Natalie wonders if she could literally fly away from the family chaos in the powerful song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” which showcases Ms. Callahan’s remarkable vocal skills.
We see another side of Natalie when she meets Henry (Alex Stone). Henry is, as described by the show’s director in a recent DCMTA interview, “the best boyfriend a lost soul could have – one who listens, supports and loves no matter what is thrown at him and how much Natalie tries to push him away.” Only a high school sophomore, the other Mr. Stone (son of fellow cast member Brent Stone) exhibits a maturity and skill far beyond his years. His honest portrayal of a guy who just wants the girl, even if she is a broken girl, is charming and sweet.
The final member of the cast, Quinn McCord, plays Diana’s two doctors, Doctors Fine and Madden. As Dr. Madden, Mr. McCord portrays a man who, like Diana’s husband, wants to see Diana cured, even as he knows medicine is not magic.
There are no easy answers here. In fact, there really aren’t answers at all. Just a pile of questions asked by people trying to survive and love for just another day. Ultimately the show ends with hope. Not the Pollyanna-ish, unrealistic cheeriness often found in stage musicals, but rather the world-weary hope of people unwilling to give up.
Producers Patti Green Roth and Linda Stone have assembled what must be the dream team of community theater given the high quality of the production. Director Lisa Anne Bailey has made some brilliant choices in staging the show. In a DCMTA interview, she characterized the story as, first and foremost, ‘a love story.’ Her deft hand keeps the show from becoming maudlin.
The cast is top notch. The music is quite challenging and, even though they might not always hit the high notes spot on, their voices have an energy and rawness of emotion that lends an authenticity that I don’t believe would be conveyed by more “perfect” vocals. Music Director David Rohde and the six-piece orchestra must also be congratulated. If I had not read the program, I would have thought the music was a recorded sound track because the musicians cannot be seen by the audience and their performances are superb.
Set Designer Michael Schlabach has created a flawless set for the story. Much simpler than the Broadway or touring company sets, we still have the sense of the family home with distinct rooms but the action is brought closer to the audience using the full space of the Alden Theatre stage. This brings an intimacy to the show not found in bigger productions. Lighting Designer Jeffery Scott Auerbach effectively uses lighting to direct our attention and create a mood in subtle and interesting ways.
Kudos as well to the Sound Designer Stan Harris, Audio Assistant Linda Stone, and the Sound Support team. Given the nature of the music, I was impressed by how well the voices and the music mixed without one drowning out the other.
The entire cast and production team are to be congratulated.
Let me, in closing, make the case once again for community theater. We are lucky in this area to have 84 professional theater companies, but we are even more blessed to have an overflowing bounty of community theater companies who give of their time and talent to create affordable theatrical events. As I stood outside the theater yesterday following the finale and watched friends and loved ones congratulate the actors, I was reminded how it is a very special thing to produce theater not because it pays the bills but simply because you love it.
Please support community theater and please get your tickets for this wonderful production. Even if you’ve seen it before, you must see McLean Community Players’ production of Next to Normal.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Next to Normal plays through February 16, 2013, at McLean Community Players at The Alden Theatre – 1234 Ingleside Avenue, in McLean, VA. Tickets may be purchased online or at the Box Office, by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111, or calling the Alden Theatre box office at (703) 790-9223. Box Office hours are: Wed & Thur: 5-9 pm Fri & Sat: noon-9 pm.
Part One of ‘Putting Normal Together’ at McLean Community Players’ by Lisa Anne Bailey.
Part Two of ‘Putting Normal Together’: Meet the Cast at McLean Community Players: Brent Stone by Joel Markowitz.
Part Three of Putting Normal Together’: Meet the Cast at McLean Community Players: Nicky McDonnell.
Part Four of ‘Putting Normal Together’ Part 4: Meet Alex Stone, Catherine Callahan, Nick Dupre, & Quinn McCord.