BWW Reviews: The World Spins, Sinks and Soars at CAP's NEXT TO NORMAL
There's something to be said for a small theater space. It's intimate, it's personal, and there isn't a bad seat in the place. But with a musical as beautifully tragic and human as Next To Normal, it is downright claustrophobic. A family attempting to overcome the past – a mother suffering from a mood disorder, a husband upholding his vows, a daughter fading into the background, and a son who hovers and coddles his mother. The lights are in your eyes, you can see the vacant look on this mother's face, the tears of a father, and the heavy emotions fill up all the empty space in the room and it's hard to breathe.
Honestly, it doesn't matter that the makeshift set of Cultural Arts Playhouse's mainstage production in Roslyn, New York is not one that reminds you of the big budgets of Broadway. It's the cast and the complex and capable rocking sounds of the band that transport you somewhere down the LIE and into the heart of the Big Apple. Most importantly, into the private and difficult crevices of a kitchen or a living room because the story of Next to Normal is so down to earth – the jealousy, the frustration, the love, the challenges of family, set to well-choreographed lighting, are ripped wide open for all to see. And it's not always pretty.
Tanya Wills embodies the sultry and downhearted character of Diana, originated on Broadway by Alice Ripley, a mother who creates miles of distance between her and her family because of the extreme love she has for her son. She is deliciously sexy and flirty, and at the same time, pathetic and empty and helpless. Diana is the focal point of this story, and despite the depths of her sickness she manages to joke with ease and show the brightness of the young woman she used to be. In the show stopping "I Miss the Mountains" in Act I, Wills owns the lyrics and is completely enchanting. Wills brings fiery passion to the role – when she is up, she's up and when she is down, she's down. You literally don't want her to stop singing, or acting, or leave the stage. Period. It is ironic how Diana is the glue of this family, and at the same time the one breaking them apart and Wills understands this, runs with it, and effectively toes this delicate balance.
As Dan, husband and father, Mark Cahill relishes the highs of life, dips into the lows, and stops somewhere in the middle – most of the time. Vocally, Cahill only improves as the show continues and excels in musical selections where he lets down his guard and gives into the anger he is feeling. In Act II, his frustrations and sadness are so palpable – his performance is raw and real as he interacts with Diana, attempts to 'start fresh', and is faced with an unlikely result. Dan and Diana's son, portrayed by Jeremy Hudson, is equally charming and dangerous -- his dark expression, the way he skulks around the stage and taunts his mother. Is Diana scared of him? Does Diana give him a certain power over her by the special treatment she grants him? Hudson is mysterious ("You Don't Know") yet surprisingly animated in "I'm Alive".
Rounding out the multi-dimensional characters of Next to Normal is Natalie played by the delightful Alyson Rogers. Musically, she is Tanya Wills' match and she also manages to thread some well-timed (and always natural feeling) comedy throughout her scenes. Her conflicts are so typical (she feels ignored; why is her brother her mom's pride and joy?) yet Rogers keeps her character fresh and relatable -- Natalie never feels self-righteous or lets her own demons make her less meaningful in this family unit. In fact, her friendship with sweet, caring Henry (Andrew Lelin) echos Maria and Tony at the school dance -- the innocence of first love, the opportunity to let their guards down yet surrounded by these overwhelming problems that will not be squashed. Rogers and Lelin are perfectly awkward around one another, conjuring wistful reminders of new relationships, the fear associated with trust, and the joy of finding solace in another.
Act I's "Who's Crazy"/"My Psychopharmacologist and I" turns into a mini-concert as Diana's doctor, well-played by Ezra Hernandez, channels his inner Justin Timberlake (he even has the hair!) as he feeds Diana's rock star doctor fantasies. In a subtle yet effective directorial move, Hernandez is able to bring a nuanced performance to the stage as he visibly struggles with helping Diana 'heal' and knowing he only has the capability of doing this through medicine and not something else.
Next to Normal, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, screams Sondheimesque and Larsonesque vibes, creating intricate musical moments where the sounds may be as catchy as a song found on the radio but the meaning something entirely opposite. CAP's cast, brilliantly directed by Tony Frangipane, is continually game and manages to make the pain and the heart of this music come alive number after number.
A fantastically dysfunctional family brings forth sensitive and hard hitting material, while at the same time reminding us of the various ways our own families may be crazy and unconventional. There is perfection in imperfection. There are many ways to feel abandoned. Sometimes loyalty and strength come from unexpected places and with unexpected outcomes. This musical might not fulfill the 'escapism' part of theater because of the difficult issues being thrown in your face at just about every minute. But you can lose yourself in this story, in the extreme talents of these cast members, and the hope that buoys throughout.
My only regrets are 1) The production didn't go on forever and 2) I forgot my tissues.
Photos by Diane Marmann.