BWW Reviews: Landing NEXT TO NORMAL at Geva Theatre Center
One thing that NEXT TO NORMAL has is power.
It's this power to blur the lines between fiction and reality; a power to make the audience feel for The Edge of their seat, and then quickly and uncomfortably shift. It's this thing that allows everyone in the auditorium to collectively swell and then frantically grab the hands of their partners when skeletons appear.
Geva Theatre's NEXT TO NORMAL has that power. There is an incredible amount of blows in this show, so much so that by the time the lights come up, you were never in the theatre. You were on the couch, watching, struggling with the family. Then, it's time to leave-it appears that the family has.
NEXT TO NORMAL is the Pulitzer-prize winning rock musical that has no shame going in for the kill-grabbing the heartstrings and tearing them out. Centered on the crippling of the nuclear family, mental illness is the not-so-taboo subject of this family on fire. There's never a moment to catch your breath, and it's hard not to watch a train wreck.
The seriocomic musical with an electric score by Tom Kitt and entrancing book by Brian Yorkey is sensational. It opened on Broadway to acclaim and awards-trending in the footsteps of a more hostile musical. Geva's cast of six is perfect together, violently forcing out all emotions onto each other-hoping someone else can pick up the fragments of their lives.
But, before the musical even begins, it's heartbreaking. Taking the time to breathe in Kevin Rigdon's scenic design, desperation to be normal is already apparent. The set, a three-story, purple hazed dollhouse, looks beaten down from the outside. Eerily empty and cold, the house haunts the stage. It's the perfect symbol for a quiet suburbia. The inside, however, looks nice, but it's questionable. It's obviously a family that struggles, a family that is perplexed on how to interact with each other. And, it isn't until Diana (played unabashedly by Catherine Porter) starts making sandwiches on the floor that the unspoken rage raises to the surface. Once it's out there, the songs don't allow for a place to hide.
The shadowy plot follows the bi-polar conditions of Diana and how her family "tries" to cope with her disorder of sixteen years. The surprise of the musical isn't in the condition; however, it's what triggers the behavior. It's how the family reacts to the same cause.
Porter, who was the stand-in for Diana on Broadway, delivers a jolting, magnificent performance. She unraveled a Diana who is rutted in her own head. She portrays the woman undone, profoundly lost and sadly not a mother. Porter's brash voice accompanies the score brilliantly. She forces every confused emotion out on each note-bridled with feelings of doubt and anger.
Matching her intensity and desperately trying to keep up is Dan, Diana's husband played by Bob Gaynor. He is as lost and frustrated as his wife. Just as desperate to keep his spouse alive and together, Dan is falling apart at the core. Gaynor gives a fierce, loving performance, overshadowed by a longing to not be alone. Yet, as he struggles to keep Diana sane, he loses sight of their daughter Natalie (played by an angst-driven Lyndsay Ricketson). Natalie, who doesn't want to be her mother, but has small traces of similarities, is unnoticed. Ricketson delivers a masterful, touching performance of the troubled teen, especially seen in "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," which is song violently with Gabe (played with a persistent fire by Cary Tedder).
The cast is complemented with the admirable, caring Googie Uterhardt, playing both Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, and by the sweet, immediately likable stoner, Henry (Jordan Craig). With delicate direction by Scott Schwartz and musical direction by Don Kot, this production never stops breathing.
Geva's presentation of NEXT TO NORMAL is affecting and provides a lingering thought of what normal could be. The cast is astounding, and the emotion is real. You hope that they can land on normal, but the truth is, they're not really sure where normal is anymore.
Photo: Greg Mooney, courtesy of ALLIANCE THEATRE, Atlanta