CENTERSTAGE soars to new heights with its electrifying production of the multiple Tony Award-winning, contemporary rock musical, Next to Normal, launching the second show of its 2014-15 Season.
Debuting off-Broadway in 2008, hitting Broadway the following year and going on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010 (a relative rarity for a musical), as well as three Tony Awards, Next to Normal is a groundbreaking, darkly funny musical that explores bipolar disorder, psychopharmacology, suicidal depression, and the devastating effects that chronic mental illness has on the lives of those who suffer from it, and their families who suffer along with them. Hardly the most upbeat subject for a musical, but writer and Lyricist Brian Yorkey and Composer Tom Kitt manage to mine the topic for some rueful humor alongside the pathos.
Next to Normal is the story of a suburban family struggling to cope with mental illness. Diana Goodman (Ariela Morgenstern), keeps up a surface veneer but she has been barely holding it together for 18 years with a husband who bores her, a son who’s a “sh” and a brainy daughter who’s a “freak.”
Diana suffers from bipolar disorder with elements of schizophrenia and depression. She goes through the motions in her marriage to the ever-faithful Dan (Michael Winther), ignores her straining-to-be-noticed 16-year-old daughter, Natalie (Kally Duling), and endures a stream of increasingly invasive medical efforts (multiple drugs, intensive therapy and shock treatment) to stabilize her unbalanced psyche. Ultimately, Diana decides to stop taking her medication, because — as she poignantly explains in the song “I Miss the Mountains” — she would rather be wracked with roiling emotions than placidly numbed by drugs.
As the afflicted housewife Diana Goodman, Ariela Morgenstern is a formidable presence, commanding the stage confidently, taking the audience from the brightest hope to the deepest despair and then back again. It is a searing portrayal, as her character’s pain and strength are equally evident. Consistent throughout, Morgensten sings magnificently, with an effortless quality perfectly suiting the tone and pace of the conversational moments of the production.
With Director David Schweizer at the helm, the cast brings remarkable clarity to the complex, multilayered characters exploring how a modern family copes with crisis and the trial-and-error process of finding the right medicinal combination to treat a mélange of manic depression and post-partum trauma.
Michael Winther is achingly hopeful and heartbreakingly supportive through disappointment after disappointment as Diana’s steadfast husband, Dan. Justin Scott Brown displays both sardonic charm and voracious need as Gabe, the son Diana dotes on, and Kally Duling is sated with caffeinated nerves and festering resentment as Diana’s academically and musically striving but neglected daughter, Natalie. Matt Lutz is both uproarious and emotionally grounded as two different doctors — an all-business psychopharmacologist, Dr. Fine, and a charismatic “rock star” therapist, Dr. Madden. Matthew Rodin exudes straightforward sweetness and determined devotion as Natalie’s patient stoner boyfriend, Henry.
Overall, everyone in the cast sings beautifully, and the four-piece band led by Music Director Darren Cohen is taut and versatile, adroitly handling the score’s many shifts from more traditional Broadway fare to wailing rock numbers and back again. Cohen beautifully captures and delivers a note-perfect rendering of the Tony Award-winning score.
Designer Caleb Wertenbaker’s open-walled, two-story set gives Schweizer’s dynamic production ample room to rove seamlessly while still maintaining an intimate atmosphere, and Aaron Black’s artistry with rock-concert, deftly colored lights accentuate some of the production’s most electric, plot-turning moments.
The satirical underpinnings of the medical establishment comes through loud and clear, but what really hits home is how much the characters love and care about each other; that is why and how they hurt each other so badly. That authenticity lends the play’s enormous emotional weight. And, lest the show seem like an unrelenting parade of misery, the humor and tender moments of connection leaven it just when it might otherwise feel next to unbearable.
Spectacularly daring, brilliantly unconventional and bittersweet, CENTERSTAGE’s Next to Normal evokes the look and feel of the Broadway original, resonating deeply, not just for people who have had to grapple with mental illness, but also, for anyone who has ever felt helpless seeing a loved one struggle through an emotionally-difficult time. Depending on which characters you connect with, the ending might seem hopeful or it might be infuriating, but the triumph of CENTERSTAGE’s production is that it grabs you whole and makes you feel in one way or another exhilarated.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.