BWW Reviews: Broad Brook Opera House's NEXT TO NORMAL Challenges and Rewards

Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Sharon FitzHenry
for the Opera House Players at Broad Brook Opera House, 107 Main Street in Broad Brook, CT through May 19

After debuting Off-Broadway in 2008 and a 2009 Broadway bow, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's musical Next to Normal joined a handful of musicals to be named a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is fascinating to see how this, the highest honor awarded to the actual text and music of a show, has covered a gamut of topics that rarely focus on boy-meets-girl.

The Gershwins' Of Thee I Sing and Fiorello! both tackle politics. South Pacific is set during war and tackles racism. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and A Chorus Line examine the corporate and entertainment businesses respectively. Sunday in the Park with George burrows into the head of the artist. Rent gathers a ragtag bunch of outsiders in the era of HIV. Next to Normal, a riveting and complex look at mental health, certainly deserves to be among their ranks.

Broad Brook's Opera House Players tackles what is easily the most challenging show that I have seen at their historic theatre. Of course, with big risks one can find the potential for failure. Happily, in this instance, the production instead reaps big rewards. The show plays with intensity in the Opera House's intimate space. By placing the Goodman Family so close to us, we realize that the insidiousness of mental illness is that it is an equal-opportunity misfortune that affects us all and could happen to anyone at any time, an elemental fear.

Diana Goodman, a normal housewife, has been suffering from an extreme form of Bipolar Disorder that has resulted in some bizarre mentation. After experimenting with various forms of drug therapies, things come to a crisis point. Rather than simply focus on Diana, we see how her increasingly unhinged existence impacts her family, gripping them in a dark limbo from which they are uncertain of their chances for recovery.

The rock music score by Tom Kitt is not quite as memorable as the non-stop onslaught of words from book writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey. All the elements in the piece require top notch singing, musicianship and acting.

Sarah Gilbert plays the tormented Diana, fully committing herself to this incredibly difficult role. Because of the nature of her Bipolar Disorder and associated dementia, she has the most brutal swings and colors to play in the piece. Gilbert digs into the part and is, at times, heartbreaking. As her husband Dan, Luis J. Manzi evidences strong pipes, handling the complex music with agility. The sneakiness of his role is how the writers choose to tackle Dan's own issues and denials. Manzi handles the curveballs well.

As the couple's children, Natalie and Gabe, Kate Elmendorf and Tomm Knightlee round out this dysfunctional family unit. Elmendorf has more dramatic heavy lifting and does her best to keep Natalie from sinking into a completely unlikable teen. Knightlee evidences the strongest singing voice on stage, particularly in the upbeat rocker "I'm Alive," creating a sympathetic and, eventually, subversive Gabe.

Rounding out the cast in this ensemble piece are Joshua Durham as Natalie's boyfriend Henry and Randy Davidson as the various psychological caregivers. These parts could seem completely secondary to the Goodmans' plight, but they show how the cyclical nature of mental illness can alternately offer hope and destruction in its wake. Both actors acquit themselves well and hold their own in their respective scenes.

Director Sharon FitzHenry clearly has dug deep to tackle this difficult material. It is not easy to balance the interior nature of mental illness with a more exterior kitchen sink drama. For the most part, FitzHenry keeps things plowing forward without making things too pat. Because of the intensity of the musical elements, there are some definite weak spots in the area of acting. Hopefully, as the actors settle into their roles over the run, they will have time to explore the more dangerous and risky emotional extremes found within the text.

The lighting, by Diane St. Amand, is the finest I have seen at the Opera House. The sound consists of a definite improvement in amplification over previous productions, but actors oftentimes made entrances with their mics off and would exit with their mics on, allowing the audience to hear backstage chatter over the monitors. The set, designed by FitzHenry, seeks to actualize Diana's cloudy state of mind, but seems, in fact, too cluttered and literal.

I know, it may be hard for Broad Brook Opera House Players to sell people on the idea of a 2-hour-plus musical about Bipolar Disorder, plus a host of other issues. Hopefully, audiences will see that the risk of tackling the endeavor that is Next to Normal is well worth the time and effort.

Next to Normal cast by Viviana's Photography.

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From This Author Jacques Lamarre

Jacques Lamarre has worked in theatre for over 20 years. As a Public Relations/Marketing professional, he held positions at Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks Hartford and Yale (read more...)