Review: ‘Next to Normal’ at Silhouette Stages

A powerful production of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Next to Normal, opened Friday night at Silhouette Stages. With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal is produced by Alex Porter and directed by Steven Fleming, with musical direction by Scott AuCoin.

Dan (Jeremy Goldman) and Diana (Susan Schindler). Photo courtesy of Silhouette Stages.
Dan (Jeremy Goldman) and Diana (Susan Schindler). Photo by Mort Shuman.

Next to Normal deals with the contemporary and the much misunderstood issue of mental illness. In particular, it deals with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic-depression. Life in the family portrayed in this very thoughtful and moving musical drama is never normal. Mom (Diana, played by Susan Schindler) suffers from bipolar disorder and as with many homes where one member is mentally challenged, the family’s days revolve around the person with the problem.

In this case Dan, the husband, (Jeremy Goldman) is loyal, supportive, and still very in love with his wife. However, her disorder has taken a toll on him as well. When she is medicated it affects everything from her ability to drive a car, and even their love life. When she is off her medication, the latter is better, but Diana’s behavior becomes very unpredictable.

Natalie (Christie Smith) and Henry ( ). Photo courtesy of Silhouette Stages.
Natalie (Christie Smith) and Henry (Michael Nugent). Photo by Mort Shuman.

There is also the matter of their children, Gabe (Danny Bertaux) and Natalie (Christie Smith). Both lives are molded by the fact that Diana did not respond to the needs of her children. In Natalie’s case, she lives with the disorder in her home and wishes with her mom that their lives were ‘Next to Normal at the least. Natalie is a talented and bright girl trying to cope with her teenage years alone. Mom is too ill and dad is too focused on Diana’s needs. Into Natalie’s life comes Henry (Michael Nugent), first a friend and then boyfriend, who in some ways is like her father, willing to take the good with the bad.

The plot deals with all of them seeking treatment for Diana in hopes that life will improve for the whole family if she can get help. However, Diana is not only bipolar – she is emotionally scarred from a real-life incident. That is true for many mentally ill individuals whose behavior is judged by their disease rather than as we would judge a “normal” individual’s. The one thing normal about Diana is the part that everyone would like to go away.

Next to Normal is a gut-wrenching musical. You wonder as you are transfixed on the characters how the actors are able to cope with playing these individuals who are so unhappy day after day. But, they all do a fantastic job.  Susan Schindler as Diana captures the plight of this very unhappy and emotionally injured woman perfectly most pointedly in the number “I Miss the Mountains” and the powerful “You Don’t Know.”

Jeremy Goldman allows us to see into the soul of this loving husband who is so conflicted by his wife’s inability to cope with life on a daily basis. He wants her to get better but really wants it on his terms. He, too, has tragedy he has never dealt with due to his own lack of acceptance when in sings “He’s Not Here.” He has this underlying sadness you see in families where one person has to all the caregiving.

Christie Smith plays Natalie, and she is the one you I wanted to weep for.  Smith makes you want to take her in your arms and tell her all will be well, something this child longs to hear. Through this characterization, we understand why Natalie is seeking some kind of anesthesia of her own, as she sings in “Everything Else.” Later there is some hope as she sings “Maybe, Next to Normal” with her mother.

As Gabe, Danny Bertaux has a very unusual job of portraying a person who is really not what he appears to be, but what his mother, and occasionally his father, want him to be. He does this brilliantly and his vocals are wonderful in the very emotional and animated “I’m Alive.”

Michael Nugent is convincing as Henry. He often is a mirror of Dan but the actor develops a very three dimensional personae, and this is one young man we grow to appreciate as the musical moves on. He and Smith have great chemistry together as they deliver the funny and romantic “Perfect for You” and three versions of ‘Hey’ in the second act. You can’t help but root for Henry.

David Woodward plays a series of doctors, including Diana’s shrink. He provides some well-needed comic relief and sings well as displayed in “Open Your Eyes.” This could have been just a role that just moves the plot but Woodward is quite compelling as the doctor who must admit he has failed.

All the performers are top-notch singers in this rock-infused musical.

Steven Fleming has done a terrific job directing this show. He never allows the show to become maudlin. He uses many levels on the proscenium stage to create lasting memories for the viewer. The director’s use of mirror imaging to show us the similarities of the characters, for instance in “I Am the One,” is cleverly done.

The set by Alex Porter first appears to be simple, but is really a complex of platforms and stairs, including a small thrust stage for some of the more intimate moments. The set decoration is minimal using just a dining table and chairs in the center to create an image of a family, a kitchen counter, and assorted sitting areas. Projections by Director Fleming of a brain with various activity, narrates the action. I really appreciated the placement of the orchestra under one of the platforms. We could unobtrusively see them, and the acoustics were just right for Slayton House.

Costumes in this musical are as important in setting the tone of the action.  The browns and grays are for the times when the characters are dealing with depression and at the end they all wear read, which reflects a rebirth for everyone during the finale “Light.” Many of the colors are chosen to reflect moods and emotions, and Samantha Duvall’s design and Samuel Andrews’ lighting effectively help to display all the roller-coaster of emotions.

Danny Bertaux (Gabe), Susan Schindler (Diana), and. Photo courtesy of Silhouette Stages.
Danny Bertaux (Gabe), Susan Schindler (Diana), and David Woodward (Dr. Madden). Photo by Mort Shuman.

The orchestra, under the Musical Direction of Scott AuCoin, is filled with excellent musicians: Lynn Graham on piano, William Kenlon on percussion, Chris Sisson on guitar, Matt Schnell on violin, Madeleine Clifton on cello, and Teddy Hersey on bass. They never drowned out or overpowered the cast.

You will find at the end of Next to Normal more insight if you have not had first-hand knowledge of mental illness, and if you have, you will feel the empathy the creators have for those who deal with it 24/7.

Don’t miss Silhouette Stages’ powerful Next To Normal. 

Running Time: Two hours and 20-minutes, with an intermission.

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Next to Normal plays through May 22, 2016 at Silhouette Stages performing at The Slayton House – 10400 Cross Fox Lane, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call (410) 637-5289, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Meet the Cast of Silhouette Stages’ ‘Next to Normal’: Part 1: Jeremy Goldman.

Meet the Cast of Silhouette Stages’ ‘Next to Normal’: Part 2: Meet Susan Schindler.

Meet the Cast of Silhouette Stages’ ‘Next to Normal’: Part 3: Meet Christie Smith.

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