BWW Reviews: Standing Room Only Productions' NEXT TO NORMAL is Strong But Uneven

Rachel Landon as Diana; Tyler Galindo as Gabe;
Derrien Kellum as Natalie; Brad Zimmerman as Dan.

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's wildly popular hit musical NEXT TO NORMAL is back on Houston stages, and audiences are packing the house. Last seen in the summer of 2012 at Stages Repertory Theatre, the almost entirely sung through musical is being produced by Standing Room Only Productions at Obsidian Art Space and covers hard hitting social issues centered around bipolar disorder, depression, and the effect these mental illnesses have on familial bonds.

Helming the show as director, Michael Taylor makes bold choices in staging and delivery that works at times and jars during others. With a keen eye for creating staged pictures, he brilliantly has cast members mirror movements and mannerisms in numbers like "Who's Crazy" and "Why Stay/A Promise." Conversely, some choices seem inappropriate and misguided. For example, he has Natalie sing "What a lovely cure/ It's a medical miracle/With a mind so pure/ That she doesn't know anything" directly to Diana instead of Dan, and he strips the power out of "So Anyway" by having his Diana sing a large chunk of the song to Gabe. Overall, he puts his own unique stamp on the beloved musical.

William Michael Luyties serves as Musical Director and has coached the cast well in finding pitch; however, more time could have been spent on having musicality and emotionality blend better. There are moments when the cast gets swept away in anger or fear and loses track of the pitches they should be signing. What happens in the interim is shouting and/or missed notes. At Saturday's performance, there also seemed to be some issues with blending; however, that may have been caused by microphone error more than human error.

Taking on the lead role of Diana Goodman, Rachel Landon sings and emotes her way through the challenging score, moving the audience with her powerful performances. She appears to be roughly 30, which is about 10 years younger than the book indicates Diana is. Despite looking too young for the role, she commits to some fabulous subtleties that make her performance stand out, especially as she picks at her scars when dealing with heavy emotions in the second act.

Additionally, Tyler Galindo as Gabe gives a show stopping and show stealing performance every time he is on stage. Whether playing up the impetuously angst-ridden aspects or the vulnerable aspects of the character, he owns the stage and keeps the audience attending to his strong performance.

Patriarch of the Goodman family, Dan, is sung well by Brad Zimmerman. I would have liked to see more emotional range and depth in his performance throughout the entirety of the show; however, in the moments when he does fully commit, his portrayal of the character is quite riveting.

Derrien Kellum as Natalie; Michael Chiavone as Henry.

Derrien Kellum's take on Natalie Goodman left me rather disappointed from beginning to end. She colors the character as a brat, replacing Natalie's inherent cynicism with a nasal whine and a pout.

Natalie's Boyfriend Henry is played with a nice range of emotions by Michael Chiavone. Zach Braver sings the dual roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden well; yet, he also looks too young to be a psychopharmacologist and a psychiatrist. Moreover, his emotions read as immature and pouty, especially as he sighs and pouts when Diana initially gives up on Dr. Fine.

It's always a pleasure to see NEXT TO NORMAL on stage. The lyrics and book are always wonderfully affective and stirring in performance. There is simply no denying that Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's work on the show is brilliant. This light and art is not lost on the Standing Room Only Productions team, and they do commendable work bringing it to life for Houston audiences despite some choices that work against the production as a whole.

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David Clarke David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre both locally and nationally for years. He joined running their Houston site in early 2012 and began writing as the site's official theatre recording critic in June of 2013.

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