‘Next to Normal’ at Kensington Arts Theatre by Amanda Gunther

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Musical brilliance comes to Kensington Arts Theatre as they present the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical Next To Normal (N2N). Directed by Craig Pettinati, N2N has a breathtakingly emotional score and heavy controversial topics. A stunning melodious adventure into the dark dalliances of normalcy in life, this production moves audiences to the core with their stunning rendition of this intricately complex score.

Dan (Ryan Burke) and Natalie (Leah Platt). Photo courtesy of Kensington Arts Theatre.
Dan (Ryan Burke) and Natalie (Leah Platt). Photo courtesy of Kensington Arts Theatre.

Scenic Designer N2N captures a simple essence in the stage’s layout. A thin white outline of a house frame centers the production with a projection screen in the background. Two staircases – one in the foreground and the other in the background – complete the illusion of a two story-house, creating beautiful complex scenes during duets and group numbers. Teaming up with Special Effects artist Doe B. Kim, there are perfectly aligned projections on the screen to highlight the beauty of Composer Tom Kitt’s score.

Director Craig Pettinati, working with Musical Director Stuart Weich, guides a flawless cast to musical excellence in this emotional demanding production. All six performers are nothing short of phenomenal, gliding with ease through the emotional peaks of this elaborately constructed lyrical drama. Pettinati and Weich work in tandem to achieve the superior sounds of emotional clarity while maintaining the vocal integrity of Kitt and Book and Lyricist Brian Yorkey’s concept.

Dr. Madden (Sayne-Khayri Lewis) – though featured briefly – has strong rock-quality vocals appropriately matched to his momentary bursts of rock-star doctor, complete with hardcore pelvic thrusts, when being introduced to Diana. Lewis shows a softer side of his vocal range later in the show during “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling (reprise)” having a smooth gospel quality to his sound.

Sparking chemistry between his mellow stoner character and the high-strung spastic daughter of a loon, Henry (Harrison Smith) creates beautiful vocal harmonies during his duets. Smith’s voice balances with grace and ease into the various rounds of “Perfect For You” and shines brightly in his solo “Hey (#1 #2 and #3). He showcases a whirlwind of complex confusion during “Perfect For You” and has a bright and bold sound that carries solidly throughout the production.

Displaying a wide range of emotions – not only vocally but physically – is Natalie (Leah Platt) who delves drastically into dysfunction as her character spirals out of control in this high-stakes musical drama. Platt reaches emotional depths well beyond what the character calls for and amazes the audience with her incredible voice. Her sound is pure, nimbly balanced as she tiptoes through “Everything Else” and transforms into a blast of heartfelt expression hailing straight from her soul for “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” Platt’s upbeat lament of being invisible is richly loaded with desperation while being impeccably intoned and right with the flawless orchestra.

Platt creates a delicate balance along with Dan (Ryan Burke) and Diana (Emily Zickler) in “The Song of Forgetting.” Three sensational voices rolling one over-top the other firing off blasts of frustration from Platt, desperate acceptance from Burke, and deep confusion from Zickler. The trio creates brilliant harmonies throughout the production and master the volatile chaos of a dysfunctional family.

Burke, as Dan, delivers a tension-filled portrayal of this sturdy character found in the father. His devotional love for Diana is shown so strongly in “A Light In The Dark” that he makes pain palpable. The first half of his performance is spent holding back his feelings, allowing them to build and burble during songs like “Who’s Crazy” and “It’s Gonna Be Good.” It isn’t until “Who’s Crazy” that his full emotional potential erupts onto the scene – his voice boisterous and expressive beyond compare. This challenging role is met with due justice in Burke’s performance.

Playing as the central focus in the family chaos is Diana (Emily Zickler). Giving a tremendously phenomenal performance in this deeply disturbed role, Zickler tackles every song with a lively energy; so expressive and so active that she radiates her songs like a jolt of electricity. At first her psychosis is subtle, muted in her songs bursting through at the right moments during songs like “Just Another Day” and “My Psychopharmacologist and I.” She commands a tragic mournful nostalgia in “I Miss The Mountains” engaging her whole body in this sorrow-filled song, her powerful sustain resonating with a sharpness and precision that cuts like a knife so that the audience can thoroughly feel her plight.

Zickler displays a ferocious intensity in her anger during “You Don’t Know” with her emotions surging forward like a dam under pressure finally exploding. Her vocal range is beyond impressive, and she never fails to deliver extreme emotions while sustaining the purity and clarity of the songs. From blinding madness in “Didn’t I See This Movie” to her heartbreaking agony in “Catch Me I’m Falling” Zickler rounds out this performance to perfection.

Gabe (Alex Xourias),Natalie (Leah Platt), Diana (Emily Zickler), and Dan (Ryan Burke). Photo courtesy of Kensington Arts Theatre.
Gabe (Alex Xourias),Natalie (Leah Platt), Diana (Emily Zickler), and Dan (Ryan Burke). Photo courtesy of Kensington Arts Theatre.

The most stunning voice of all comes from the angelic sounds of Alex Xourias as Gabe. Showcasing a myriad of emotions in every song that he sings, this actor being the epitome of perfection for this stunning role. There is a yearning desperation in “I’m Alive” that translates to the audience on a raw and powerful level leaving everyone listening on the edge of emotion breakdown. His tear-jerking rendition of “There’s A World” made me tear up as it did to many audience members; a soulful heartfelt performance that emotes the desperation of the situation with crystal clarity. Xourias has incredible energy in his body as he uses it to enhance each of his songs, especially “Aftershock” which is simply loaded with the haunting tragedy that encompasses the entirety of the show.

Kensington Arts Theatre’s Next to Normal has a sensational cast that is beyond words – and they deliver stunning performances that are beyond comparison. Don’t miss this powerful production!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.


Next To Normal plays through February 23, 2013 at the Kensington Town Center – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call (206) 888-6642 or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.


  1. Leah Platt is our great-niece. Although we live in Florida and cannot attend any of her performances, we are kept up-to-date by her maternal grandmother, my sister.
    We are very proud of Leah’s accomplishments and wish her the best of luck and happiness as she sets off for college in the fall, and in her future career, whatever choice it might be.


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