BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at TheaterWorks

BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at TheaterWorksAnyone who knows me knows I am passionate about the theatre and about the rare and radiant feeling that can only come from a few hours in a darkened space connecting on an emotional level both with a set of actors and those around you sharing that common experience. Sometimes a play gets it right, sometimes it doesn't, but sometimes a production comes along that is something else altogether. It goes beyond entertainment, reaching in and touching you to your very core in a brilliant symphony of emotional energy. This is exactly what is happening at TheaterWorks in Hartford in its latest production - Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's NEXT TO NORMAL, and it is something truly magnificent.

NEXT TO NORMAL tells the story of the Goodmans: father Dan (David Harris), mother Diana (Christiane Noll), son Gabe (John Cardoza) and daughter Natalie (Maya Keleher). On the surface, they seem like the "perfecT Loving family", but bubbling underneath they are barely holding on and are dealing with serious issues stemming from Diana's mental illness. Over the course of the play, Diana and her family traverse the highs and lows of someone dealing with bi-polar disorder, first through therapy and medication and then more extreme treatments and the outcome. Throughout this journey the audience witnesses, in all its raw emotion, how pain, grief and loss can impact a family.

With a rock-infused score by Tom Kitt, and strong, witty, and wry lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey, NEXT TO NORMAL does what some might call impossible - it makes a musical out of mental illness. But it is more than that - it is a musical about grief, loss, family, hope, and light. The play, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama gives voice (and music) to emotions so strong, as director Rob Ruggiero states in the program, they "demand to be sung."

What is also striking and special about this production at TheaterWorks is the perfect fit of script, BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at TheaterWorkscast, score, and space. While NEXT TO NORMAL in its original Broadway staging worked well, it's almost as if the show was written to be performed in a theater like TheaterWorks. The intimate setting amplifies the emotion, creating an immediate connection and it doesn't let go until the last chords of the final number. As cast members enter and exit from the audience, they create a sense of involvement and urgency with voices echoing around the room as if they were voices in the head or pieces of a fractured or forgotten melody.

But what truly makes NEXT TO NORMAL a must-see is the brilliant cast. As Diana, Christiane Noll is raw, fractured, and radiant. She embodies Diana in a way that is so right, so perfect, it is hard to believe the role wasn't written specifically for her. Her Diana may very well be the gold standard for anyone playing the role in the future, she is that good. Her voice is simply perfect for Diana's melodic, yet rock and roll style songs and she conveys a million emotions in just a word. As Dan, David Harris also delivers an amazing voice, but displays an equally strong capacity to capture the conflicted emotions of the man who has stood by Diana through all her highs and lows. Maya Keleher brings a brooding, but brilliant Natalie to life with such power and clarity, it is very hard to believe that this marks her professional debut. She has a long career ahead of her. And John Cardoza, as Gabe, part golden boy and part enigma, delivers powerful emotion in each of his scenes and a soaring voice in every song. Rounding out the cast is Nick Sacks as Natalie's stoner boyfriend, Henry and J.D. Daw as Doctors Fine and Madden. Both are strong, and deliver solid performances in their respective roles.

BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at TheaterWorksAnother critical piece of what makes TheaterWorks' NEXT TO NORMAL work so well is Wilson Chin's set design. The turntable center stage evokes the swirling thoughts in Diana's mind and creates a sense a urgency, movement and transition in a way that could otherwise be quite difficult in such a small space. Using household objects scattered throughout to represent Diana's memories was also an inspired choice. John Lasiter's lighting and Ed Chapman's sound designs amplify and focus the emotion and help bring this story to brilliant life. And the musicians, led by music director and conductor Adam Souza shine.

Overall, director Rob Ruggiero has put together a show that tells an honest and authentic story in a way that pulls you in and makes you care about these people, as broken and bruised as they may be. NEXT TO NORMAL is not always easy to watch, with its challenging subject matter and it's emotional weight, but its power and brilliance is something that everyone should have the chance to experience.

NEXT TO NORMAL runs at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through May 7. TheaterWorks is located at 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For more information call 860-527-7838BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at TheaterWorks or go to

Photo credits: Lanny Nagler

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