BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Lakeland Players Gracefully Tackles Mental Illness in an Age of Reducing the Stigma
Do you need to find a bit of a "light in the dark?" Until May 26th, the Lakeland Players have three more performances of Next to Normal at the Starlight Theater in Waterford. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's tour de force premiered on Broadway in 2009, going on to win three Tony Awards including Best Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Actress in a Musical. Furthermore, Next to Normal is just one of two musicals in history to lose Best Musical at the Tony Awards but win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the other being Sunday in the Park with George). This show tackles a variety of complex but fascinating topics including, but not limited to, mental illness, addiction, suburban family life, electroconvulsive therapy, and suicide. Regardless of whether or not you have been touched by any of these topics, I can't stress how significant seeing Lakeland's production is.
In short, Next to Normal is about a family whose world has been rocked by death and mental illness. However, the story is just a bit more complicated than that. Diana Goodman is a mother to Natalie and Gabe, wife to Dan, and also someone who suffers from severe bipolar disorder triggered by a death in the family. This rock musical explores mainly focuses on how her illness affects her loved ones on a daily basis.
To be frank, Next to Normal is my all-time favorite musical. I've seen four different community productions of it over the past four years, and I'm listening to the Italian soundtrack of it as I write this review. Of the four productions that I've seen, Lakeland's version stands out. Director Maria Mikulec, who I interviewed a couple weeks ago, made a lot of unique directorial decisions that I've never seen before. Just one example is a scene in which Diana is coerced into suicide by her hallucination. No production of this musical shows Diana hurting herself, but Lakeland's production makes it a point to show the instrument that she utilizes. I had never seen that before, and it was absolutely fascinating.
Because I loved every single performance in this production, I'd like to say a couple sentences about each of the six actors.
Elaine Riedel as Diana: Riedel has a tough job in this show. Not only is she in the majority of the musical, but her scenes are incredibly emotional. There's a reason original Diana Alice Ripley won the Tony for Best Actress in 2009, and it's because of the kind of performance I saw in Riedel's Diana. She just nails every scene she's in.
Joel Mapes as Dan: One thing I kept on noticing about Mapes was his voice. It has a very rock and roll vibe to it, and it suits the music of this show perfectly. In addition, his dynamic with the whole cast was quite strong, but I specifically enjoyed his evolving relationship with Sarahfay Hendin's Natalie.
Sarahfay Hendin as Natalie: Throughout this performance, I was in awe that someone as young as Hendin could bring such intensity and power to a small community production of a small show. After seeing her as Natalie, I have no doubt that she's going to be a star someday.
Austin Foster as Gabe: In every production of Next to Normal that I see, I tend to look for how each Gabe is different from the others. In Foster's case, his Gabe is persistent and antagonistic, even more so than others I've seen. It's evident that Foster understands what the character is there to symbolize, which is such a significant aspect in determining whether or not a production of Next to Normal will thrive.
Nour Sanif as Henry: Sanif's non-verbal acting choices made me sympathize with Henry, something I hadn't really felt before. Sanif's character comes across more innocent than others I've seen, and perhaps that was because he's being played by someone around the right age.
Sylvester Nadar as Doctor Fine/Doctor Madden: The two doctors are intriguing characters in this show, especially because the audience doesn't get too much insight into their personalities outside of their profession. That said, Nadar's interpretation of these characters adds an entirely new dimension to bring you further into his mind and his way of thinking.
Though it's a show with heavy topics, Next to Normal tackles each of them with such grace that it will make you want to come back for a rewatch. In a Dear Evan Hansen-age where mental health is often a topic of discussion, Next to Normal is becoming increasingly significant. After just one viewing, I can say without a doubt that Lakeland's production is truly a gift to the Metro Detroit community.
Next to Normal runs through May 26th at Lakeland Players in Waterford Township. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.lakelandplayers.net/tickets.html.
Connect with Lakeland Players on Twitter at @LakelandTHEATRE, on Instagram at @lakelandplayers, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/lakelandplayerstheatre/.