BWW Reviews: Merrick Theatre's NEXT TO NORMAL Endures, Copes, Hurts & Hopes
What is normal anyway?
Is it staying up all night to cram for test after test? Wanting to sleep with your wife? The ability to make a pipe out of an apple? Performing as a musical virtuoso? Making sandwiches on the floor? Or just being able to have a calm dinner for once?
But since Diana, wife and mother, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost 18 years ago, life is more about walking on eggshells than family game night. Husband Dan is trying to keep the family functioning in some kind of capacity while daughter Natalie is pushed aside time and time again because of her mother’s trials and the undivided attention given to her brother.
In Merrick Theatre’s current production, directed by Nick Attanasio and playing through September 9th, parallels between mother and daughter run deep. Diana (Jennifer Collester-Tully) and Dan (Danny Amy) struggle to find middle ground in their marriage – she feels too much and he’s too good at ignoring it, while Natalie (Brittany Lacey) is unsure about letting down her guard for sweet stoner, Henry (Michael Visconti), who won’t leave her side. Both women are forced to face the truth: their own needs may rank higher than the needs of others. Maybe that is the only way they can be any kind of normal.
While it is Diana’s condition that sets forth the falling action of this musical, Dan and Natalie are the core of this presentation. Danny Amy realistically goes through the motions from hopeful to dejected and as a Merrick Theatre veteran, plays his best performance as of late. While he is a rock for his family, the vulnerability slowly unveils itself, leaving quite an impact by the end of Act II. Lacey is a softer Natalie – the brainiac who is mediocre when it comes to dealing with everything else. She isn’t especially combative with either of her parents, but, instead, seems a bit tired of it all. Lacey hits some beautiful notes with her strong and never wavering voice, especially in Act I’s “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.”
Jennifer Collester-Tully gives an emotional portrayal of Diana with small bursts of welcomed comedy. But while the show is essentially an intimate look at Diana’s mindset, Collester-Tully smoothed the harder edges of this multi-layered role, creating a distance between herself and the audience. (In Act II, Collester-Tully was stronger and more forceful, qualities that didn’t manifest as well in the first.) Her needy relationship with her son, Gabe (David Beck), drives a boulder between her and her husband and daughter, but she puts forth no effort to stop this behavior. Beck’s Gabe, gangly and soft-spoken, brings comfort to his mother with his caresses and words. (In fact, he never seems like “a little shit”, as his mom puts it.) At times, he is 18 going on 6, the young boy who still needs his mother and she will gladly care for him over Dan and Natalie.
Beck’s performance is punctuated by his electric numbers like “I’m Alive”, the spine-tingling duet with Lacey in “Superboy and the Invisible Girl”, and the heartbreaking and desperate “I Am the One” reprise in Act 2 with Amy.
Next to Normal is a show that does not sugarcoat the aftershocks of mental instability in a family. The cracks worsen, the foundation becomes unstable, and everyone, in their own way, is clinging to some kind of safety net. It is the safe and adorable moments between Natalie and Henry that bring much needed light to this heavy show, and Lacey and Visconti are undoubtedly and realistically uncomfortable with one another as their characters first connect. It’s a shame Visconti’s vocals are limited in this particular musical because when the two sing “Perfect for You” – it feels so right. (Although, I can’t say the same about his backward cap.)
Merrick’s presentation of this rock musical impressively features many detail-oriented moves from the set to the color-coordinated costumes to the lighting (“Who's Crazy"/"My Psychopharmacologist and I” was especially well-done), which only enhances the emotions exhibited on the stage by the actors. The live music, led by HyanKyung Jang, never overpowered the brilliant voices and, therefore, allowed the audience to truly grasp the meaning of the lyrics. Staging throughout, but most noticeably in the final scene, was effective and wonderfully deliberate – leaving quite an impact.
In so many ways, Next to Normal is a play about failure, expectation, bravery, and acceptance. Each of these characters has to give a little to get a little, and it takes many monumental moments and even some smaller ones for them to come to one surprising conclusion after another. This production, despite its tendency to play it a bit too safe at times, is a fine way to introduce many in the local community to this innovative musical that radiates with deep truths and subjects that deserve the limelight.
Next to Normal is playing at Merrick Theatre & Center for the Arts until September 9th. For a complete schedule and directions, please visit their website, their Facebook page, or call (516) 868-6400.
Photo Credit: Merrick Theatre & Center for the Arts