BWW Reviews: NEXT TO NORMAL - An Electrifyingly Good Time at Stages Repertory Theatre

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The acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical Next to Normal received positive reviews and awards during its creation, pre-Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Broadway runs. It tackles the issue of mental health and how they may put the fun in a severely dysfunctional family. However, when it came time to produce a national tour, it had a whopping sixteen stops that managed to somehow forget to include the South on their itinerary. Ultimately, this left my wife and I upset because we were dying to see the show, and it appeared that the producers didn’t feel that the South was sophisticated enough for their show.

Luckily, Stages Repertory Theatre, as they have shown on numerous occasions, is fine with taking risks. They tackled the heavy show and provided Houston, TX with the regional premiere of Next to Normal. As a side note to all my Southern and Texas friends, you’ll be glad to know that Stages Repertory Theatre is not alone. MTI, who owns the rights to show, has several listings for future productions in other cities as well, including a quickly approaching production in San Antonio, Texas.

The first thing the audience sees at this production is the set, masterfully designed by Ryan McGettigan. It is beautiful and versatile. Most importantly, it is serenely inviting, creating a feeling that the audience has been invited into the Goodman’s home so they can watch the drama unfold in the most intimate of settings. In addition to McGettigan’s set, Kirk Markley’s light design dazzles the senses. Markley uses colors perfectly to help the audience differentiate locale and to add emotional depth. The lights rarely break away from cool greens and placid blues, but when they do the effect resonates within the core of the audience. However, the most perfect blending of set and lights is probably the use of lights in the walls that are constructed to show large black and white photos that represent the family, especially in the way that these set pieces are lit during the second act when compared to the first.

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Melissa Rain Anderson’s direction and choreography shape the piece as well. Each entrance, exit, and transition is fluid. No cast member has a movement that is out of place, making each portrayal of the characters believable and tangible. The cast, under Anderson’s direction, brings the story to life in a palpable and visceral way, ensuring that there is no dry eye left in the house when the show is over.

The star of the show is Happy McPartlin’s Diana Goodman. She expertly vacillates between anger, mania, depression, and vulnerability. Her ability adds great emotional depth and clarity to the multi-faceted character of Diana. She also delivers powerhouse vocals that are more reminiscent of Marin Mazzie’s portrayal of Diana than Alice Ripley who originated the role. As a fan of the Original Broadway Cast recording that is a staple in my car’s CD player, this did take some getting used to, but by the end of the second act, I was a true believer and moved to tears during both “Maybe (Next to Normal)” and “So Anyway.” McPartlin owned the role, made it her own, and delivers an unforgettable performance.

The other adult characters are well-acted and sung as well. Brad Goertz, who handled the second act much more adeptly than the first in the performance I saw, does well showing how worn down Dan is in the wake of Diana’s mania and depression. He brings a good sense of vulnerability when delivering lines that deal with why he stays with Diana, exploring the ideas of staying out of familiarity and a promise he made as a younger man versus staying for love. He handles Dan’s introspection well, and delivers his best performances in “Why Stay?/A Promise” and “I Am the One (Reprise).” Moreover, Kregg Dailey’s Dr. Madden, the rock star psychiatrist, is instantly memorable and a real treat.

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Out of the younger cast members, Mark Ivy’s Henry steals the show, which left me wishing that Henry had a larger part in the show. More over, Ivy handles the role so well that, in all honesty and sincerity, I feel that he blows original Broadway cast member Adam Chanler-Berat’s Henry out of the water. Ivy brings life to the role and truly captures the audience’s heart and attention every time he is on stage, making Henry the most memorable and likable of the portrayed youth.

Opposite of Ivy is Rebekah Stevens, who plays Natalie Goodman. She truly came to life in the second act, expertly laying out all of the raw emotions that make Natalie such a profound character in numbers such as “Wish I Were Here,” and easily moved the audience to bittersweet heartbreak in “Maybe (Next to Normal).” Tyler Berry Lewis’ portrayal of Gabe is strong as well. He really finds his inner-rock star in numbers such as “I Am the One” and “I’m Alive.” However, his second act performance showed more versatility and depth, becoming a force to be reckoned with and showing amazing talent in his renditions of “Aftershocks” and “I’m Alive (Reprise).”

Overall, Stages Repertory Theatre does a great job with their production of Next to Normal. This is a must see production of a must see show.

Since I can guarantee that you’ll regret missing an opportunity to see Next to Normal, I implore you to call (713) 527 – 0123 or visit http://stagestheatre.com. Also, get your tickets now. The show is selling well and is sure to sell out. Don't take the risk that there will be any stand by tickets available. Next to Normal runs at Stages Repertory Theatre until June 24, 2012 (unless the theatre gods bestow Houston with the wonderful gift of an extension to the run. Hint, hint; nudge, nudge, Stages).

Photos courtesy of Bruce Bennett.


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