Review: Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective's NEXT TO NORMAL is Heart-Rending and Hopeful

Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner runs through June 30 at Central Square.

By: Jun. 10, 2024
Review: Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective's NEXT TO NORMAL is Heart-Rending and Hopeful
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A middle-aged woman’s struggle with bipolar disorder and the toll it takes on her family may seem like an unlikely subject for a musical. A solid co-production by Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective of “Next to Normal” – the first in New England to feature a black family – at CST in Cambridge through June 30 proves, however, that even subjects like the effectiveness of electroshock therapy can make for compelling musical theater.

This will come as no surprise, of course, to those familiar with the show from its successful stints off-Broadway and in Washington, D.C., or its two-year run, 2009–2011, on Broadway, where it won not only three Tony Awards, including Best Score for composer Tom Kitt and book writer/lyricist Brian Yorkey, but also the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It was only the eighth time since 1917 that a musical had won the Pulitzer – placing “Next to Normal” in a league with such iconic shows as “A Chorus Line,” “Rent,” “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying,” and “South Pacific.” This distinction now also belongs to “Hamilton” and “A Strange Loop.”

Yorkey’s story focuses on wife and mother Diana Goodman (Sherée Marcelle) and her long battle with bipolar disorder and frequent preoccupying thoughts of her son, Gabe (Diego Cintrón). While her husband (Anthony Pires, Jr.) remains steadfastly loyal to Diana, their teenaged daughter, Natalie (Cortlandt Barrett), slides between overachievement and self-medicated detachment as she becomes involved with the devotedly earnest Henry (Dashawn McClinton).

Under the able direction and choreography of Front Porch Arts Collective’s education director and associate producer Pascale Florestal, the terrific cast – which also includes Ricardo “Ricky” Holguin as two of the doctors who treat Diana – brings the script’s deep poignancy to aching yet hopeful life. Under the musical direction of Katie Bickford, a tight five-piece band well serves Kitt and Yorkey’s winningly contemporary score.

It is a capable company led by the plaintive Marcelle, heartbreaking as a mother haunted by memories and tormented by mental illness, and moving on songs like “I Miss the Mountains,” “Didn’t I See This Movie?” and the haunting “You Don’t Know.” Pires is affecting, too, as the husband and father who tries in vain to shelter his family from the pain and secrets that seem so ready to fully engulf them.

Cintrón vividly demonstrates the many reasons behind his mother’s sometimes all-consuming interest in him. And, while her character, Natalie, is sometimes adrift, Barrett makes certain we not only see but understand the young woman’s awkward time and place in life with her terrific takes on songs like act one’s “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” with Marcelle and Cintrón. The youthful Barrett and McClinton pair well visually and vocally, especially on act two’s sweetly honest “Perfect for You.”

Scenic designer Erik D. Diaz’s multi-level set allows for numerous scene changes while time and place are further delineated by Kiara Escalera’s character-authentic costumes.

Mental illness affects the lives of one in four families – or 60 million Americans. With “Next to Normal,” Kitt and Yorkey have crafted a moving, meaningful musical that takes hold of not only our attention but also our hearts.

Photo caption: Anthony Pires, Jr., Sherée Marcelle, and Diego Cintrón in a scene from “Next to Normal. Photo by Maggie Hall.


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