BWW Reviews: Arden Theatre's NEXT TO NORMAL - Compelling, Intimate Musical Drama
It's easy to write NEXT TO NORMAL off as brilliant. Eleven Tony nominations, three wins, a Pulitzer for writer Brian Yorkey and for composer Tom Kitt – just declare it amazing and go home. Try not to copy the Broadway version exactly, tone down the extravaganza just slightly for the local crowd, and figure it speaks for itself. That's the easy way to handle this incredibly complex show.
Terrence Nolan has done quite a bit more than that with it, though, at Arden Theatre Company. He's turned a rock extravaganza about bipolar disorder, the vagaries of the mental health system, and the question of psychopharmacology into an elegant, minimalist, almost intimate performance. From the ever-changing background projections that are wallpaper one minute, a dizzying array of drugs another, and a kaleidoscopic ink blot later, to the almost prop-less set, we are left with nothing except mind and its loss, emotions and their crises.
Kristine Fraelich makes a perfect Diana – vulnerable, confused, but still strong enough to make the decisions she believes will help her life. James Barry is convincing as Dan, the husband desperately trying to hold on to something that may no longer be there – if it ever was there at all. The other casting choices are equally satisfying, while the spareness of the set allows their work to shine.
Kudos particularly for Fraelich's compelling delivery of "I Miss the Mountains," which echoes sentiments familiar to anyone who's ever experienced a too-high dose of an antidepressant, let alone the pharmacological cocktails administered to patients with issues more complicated than depression, and for "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," a passionate delivery by Rachel Camp of the feeling of being completely ignored in favor of a worshipped older brother. Barry's determined optimism in "Better than Before" and "It's Gonna Be Good" is a pleasure to watch and to hear as he admirably portrays a man driven to convince himself and everyone around him that everything is fine.
NEXT TO NORMAL is not an easy musical to watch, and it shouldn't be, but the Arden's production makes grappling with the difficult issues it presents an artistically satisfying challenge. Through November 4 at Arden Theatre Company; for tickets visit www.ardentheatre.org.
Photo Credit: Mark Garvin