BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Susquehanna Stage Company
Upon walking into the old, rustic building that houses the Susquehanna Stage Company, the first thing to strike the audiences is the set of their newest production, NEXT TO NORMAL. The second level stands at the top of two staircases, and towers above an open area that is illuminated by a simplistic yet almost eerie lightning design, one that sets the tone of their production from the very beginning. The Susquehanna Stage Company's rendition of NEXT TO NORMAL is one that tackles challenging topics and somber situations in an impressive feat of emotion, leaving the audiences both heartwarmed and heartbroken. It is a show that the reviewer has loved for several years but had never seen in person until now, and is delighted that Susquehanna Stage Company lived up to almost all expectations.
NEXT TO NORMAL is the second show listed in the theatre's "Pulitzer Prize-Winning Season," and follows the life of Diana Goodman, a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the large toll that her treatment inflicts on the rest of her family. The show ran it's course on Broadway from April 15th, 2009 to January 16th, 2011, breaking several box office records and earning 11 Tony Award nominations in the process. The original cast included Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, Aaron Tveit, and Jennifer Damiano, among others, and the original Broadway production took home Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Orchestration, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley. The show received a myriad of rave reviews from critics, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. The Susquehanna Stage Company's production was certainly faced with very large shoes to fill, but they managed fit almost perfectly.
The role of Diana Goodman is certainly not one for the faint of heart. This is a woman who has looked tragedy in the eye and is left to face the aftermath with nothing but a mental illness to lead the way. An actress in this role must not only possess outstanding vocal ability, but somehow portray the complicated inner workings of a woman with bipolar depression. Julia Tighe Howie is met with an enormous challenge, but she delivers a performance that proves she is the right woman for the job. Her Diana is dynamic and messy, and is filled with a refreshing spunk that was unexpected of her character but welcomed by the audience. Many of her lines are delivered with a certain charm and sense of wit, especially early on the show, but never in a way that seems inappropriate for the subject matter.
Diana is a woman dealing with a myriad of hardships, and Howie certainly brings this aspect of her character to the surface in her particularly serious moments, where she does an excellent job of bringing a solemn nature to the show by displaying the constantly-changing nature of Diana's illness and the switch from manic to depression. While her physicality sometimes seemed a bit forced and slightly repetitive, it often does not draw any attention away from the various moments of genuine emotion that Howie brings to the character. Her vocal ability is also incredibly strong, as her character demands. Howie's songs carry the show, especially in number such as "Didn't I See This Movie" and "Why Stay?". However, there were moments where she seemed a bit more focused on sounding conventionally "good" rather than on always highlighting Diana's instability. That being said, she redeems herself quite frequently throughout the show, giving the audience a character to sympathize with and to hope for. Diana's relationships with the other members of her family are crucial to the success of NEXT TO NORMAL, and Howie works incredibly well with the rest of the cast to create a family dynamic that screams dysfunction, whether it be with Diana's husband, Dan (Adam Dienner), her daughter Natalie (Sylvia Garner), or her son Gabe (Nik Olson). Her obvious and frustration mix with a good deal of fear to create a Diana that is simply fascinating to watch, and contributes largely to the show's overall quality.
Diana's husband, Dan Goodman, is an equally challenging role, and Adam Dienner portrayal of the character is exactly what one would imagine a man in Dan's position to be. Dienner's exceptionally realistic acting style is very appropriate to the world of the show, and makes up a Dan Goodman that could very well be living down the street in your own neighborhood. He is man in a situation just as difficult as that of his wife, the role of lifeline one he has clearly mastered but finds growing more challenging each day. However, Dienner's Dan remains stable even through his mounting frustration, juxtaposing Diana's ever-changing moods. He is filled with hope, embodying the tired yet endlessly devoted man Dan should be, self-described as "the one who cares." His role as the rock of the Goodman family make moments where he begins to break even more emotional, and Dienner is able to facilitate this slow decline in faith through his facial expressions and line delivery, both of which are naturalistic and easy to believe. This being said, there were instances in which Dienner could benefit from a bit more intensity, especially in his bigger moments, but he consistently invests a sincerity into his character that makes the audience empathize with his plight. In addition, his vocal ability is particularly commendable and is some of the best in the show, particularly in "I Am the One" and "I've Been."
He works especially well with Diana, the two of them coming together to display a chemistry and concern for one another that survives despite their situation, the difficult love between them made even more apparent by their opposing dispositions. However, moments where their conflicting natures come to a head are just as important and emotionally rich as the moments of passion and profound love that they share. Dienner also displays a rocky relationship with Sylvia Garner's Natalie. He is obviously working very hard to understand his daughter and her point of view, but ultimately ends up taking some of his own frustrations out on her. His attempts to reconcile are actively resisted by a resentful Natalie, and the result is a certain unfamiliarity between them that the audience can't help but pick up on. But Dienner's Dan is one that, through it all, wants nothing more than to help pick up the pieces of his family's broken past, even if he doesn't always know how.
Sylvia Garner plays Natalie, the Goodman daughter whose life has been anything but normal. She consistently holds herself to nearly impossible expectations, most of them being her own. Not only that, but she must also live in the shadow of the older brother who's never around, while simultaneously dealing with her mother's crippling illness. These all contribute to a Natalie is understandably full of teen angst, and Garner does a great job of bringing this anger to the surface. Her Natalie is one that seems in a perpetual state of stress, always appearing rushed and hurried and almost afraid to let anyone else into her life. This is almost expected of the character, and Garner very clearly understands the nature of her role. However, there are times when she seems just on the brink of other emotions aside from anger, nearly able to reach them but requiring one final push to fully reach her potential.
By employing a bit more variety in her inflection and physicality, Garner will have completely brought to life a Natalie that is tormented by the thought of always competing with her brother. Her facial expressions are particularly useful at displaying this acute sense of frustration, aided by a strong voice evident in songs such as "Superboy and the Invisible Girl." An interesting aspect of her character are the similar relationships Natalie shares with her family as well her boyfriend, Henry (Asher Johnson). Garner's Natalie appears equally fed up with her family as with Henry, often short and cross with them while also displaying frequent, touching moments of concern that are rare yet welcomed. Natalie's resentment towards her parents and fear of becoming close to Henry are crucial elements of the character, and Garner makes these elements very clear in her portrayal.
Gabriel Goodman is perhaps the driving force behind NEXT TO NORMAL, the seemingly prodigal son who may not be all that he appears to be. From his first moment on stage, Nik Olson's Gabe is confident and carefree; he becomes the equivalent of an omnipotent presence, able to see and know everything. He consistently uses this ability to his advantage throughout the show, and commands the stage each time he appears. Gabe's power is the crux of his importance as a character, and Olson wields this power well, donning Gabe with the perfect tools for controlling those around him, whether they know it or not. His portrayal of the Goodman son is one that radiates a mysterious and self-assured boy who knows where he stands and knows exactly what he can get others to do. He is manipulative and generally untrustworthy, and yet we as an audience root for him anyway, perhaps because he also seems to genuinely care for his mother Diana.
His pronounced confidence makes his moments when he feels betrayed by her all the more emotional, and Gabe becomes almost unrecognizable. His untouchable facade is gone, and he left as the boy he really is. Olson handles these transitions exceptionally well, and this is a great display of his versatility. His vocal performance often stole the show, especially during his solo number, "I'm Alive," but there are instances where he could tone down his strength to show a softer, bit more vulnerable Gabe when the time is right. Gabe's interactions with his parents are incredibly interesting, perhaps due to the drastic differences between them. The animosity between Gabe and Dan is very well-done, as they managed to tackle an uncommon relationship between a father and son. Gabe's obvious jealousy and distrust of Dan gives the audience a general feeling of uneasiness, while his overflowing affection for his mother tells a different tale. His affect on Diana is just as potent; she seems to almost met when he appears and is almost completely dependent upon him. Olson's Gabe is an enigma, but one that the audience wants to unravel.
Asher Johnson and Sheldon Markel portray Henry and Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden respectively, and each bring us a glimpse into life outside the Goodman household and yet are crucial to the show's advancement. Johnson's Henry is every bit the lovable stoner, a boy who doesn't have much in the world aside from his feelings for Natalie and doesn't seem to mind. His chemistry with Garner's Natalie is simple and pure; he is filled to the brim with earnesty and care, and clearly only wants to see Natalie in a better state of mind. He handles each hurdle Natalie's life throws at them with patience and determination, and Johnson's genuine stage presence make his character immediately popular with the audience. While in need of a bit more energy at times, his purely adorkable attitude and persistence is what makes Johnson a perfect match for the role, along with a wealth of vocal talent displayed well in songs such as "Perfect For You."
In contrast, Sheldon Markel's Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden are both men that are not so easy to connect with. Taking turns as Diana's "psychopharmacologist," each man are the epitome of professional, almost uneasily so. Of course, this is exactly as the characters should be, and Markel does a remarkable job at giving each doctor a lack of empathy. Both are unattached and seem concerned only with treating the patient no matter what that may entail. Both Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden appear to only see Diana as a number rather than a person, a subject for new medical treatments despite the risks they pose. Throughout the show, Markel's doctors are calm and collected, never seeming to particularly invest themselves in Diana's case. They are unnerving, and add to the overall tension that NEXT TO NORMAL is known for.
Susquehanna Stage Company's production of NEXT TO NORMAL is one that twists the heartstrings unmercilessly, expertly employing a full range of emotions. The show is able to produce both laughter and tears within two hours, a common mark of a high-caliber production. Emotional power drives the show, letting the tension mount until the audience finds themselves irrevocably invested in the lives of the Goodman family. While each member of the cast had moments to shine on their own, ensemble numbers such as "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling" and "Light" are incredibly impressive. The cast comes together consistently to create a show that makes profound statements regarding mental illness and family dynamics, ones that should be brought to attention far more often. It is a production that should not be missed, as it is something next to amazing.
Presented by Susquehanna Stage Company through April 15th. Next is CRIMES OF THE HEART. Visit susquehannastageco.com.