BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL Breaks Stigmas at Cultural Arts Playhouse
Note: This review has excluded spoilers for the musical as much as possible for the sake of the audience members not familiar with the show.
"Most people who think they're happy are really just stupid," Diana Goodman tells her psychiatrist as she begins treatment for bipolar depression and other mental health conditions in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer Prize and Tony-Award winning musical "Next to Normal."
When I first saw "Next to Normal" in 2008 during its Broadway run this line resonated with me. I laughed out loud along with a few other audience members. To me this line was the perfect, sardonic comment that resonated with my high school angst. However, 10 years later this line and show has opened my mind to how progressive, yet also flawed, this musical is.
Mental illness continues to have a stigma in this country and I applaud the Cultural Arts Playhouse for taking on a musical with such difficult and timely subject material.
The passion this cast has for their production is evident through their dedication to diving head first into the emotional narrative and embodying characters faced with painful pasts, experiences and revelations.
Sarah Berger plays Diana, the role originated by Alice Ripley. Ms. Berger's vocals are stunning and her dedication to the drama of the role is apparent. However, the actress looks quite young and a few moments do not register as strongly as they could have if she was in her 40's - like Ms. Ripley or Marin Mazzie when they played the role on Broadway. Early in the play her psychopharmacologist explains that she has a 17-year history of medication, but this does not add up when the character is played by a young woman.
A master-class with Patti LuPone that aired on HBO portrayed a similar situation in which a young woman in her 20's who she was mentoring chose a song from "Next to Normal" - Diana's "I Miss the Mountains" - as an audition song. Even though Ms. LuPone admittedly said she was not familiar with the musical she could tell this was a song meant for a woman far older based on the lyrics and encouraged her to choose a song for her age range.
Despite the conflict of age, I still found her performance to be extremely moving and palpable.
The age factor unfortunately carries over to the portrayal of the relationship between Diana and her teenage daughter Natalie, played by the talented Alyssa Caracciolo. Most actresses on Broadway who play high school students are in fact in their 20's, but paired with an actress who doesn't look considerably older I found it harder to invest in their story arc. Again, this is not to discredit Ms. Caracciolo's singular performance. Her longing for a normal, nuclear family is expressed vividly on her expressive face as she feels her own sanity waning - her worst fear.
Prolific Long Island actor Danny Amy, who also created the two-level set, plays Diana's husband and Natalie's father, Dan. After seeing him in a plethora of musicals I have to say this may be his strongest performance (that I have witnessed) to date. There is so much pain behind his eyes as he loses control of his family, especially in "I've Been" in which he literally cleans up damage that he can't undo himself.
Michael Creta, portraying Diana and Dan's son Gabe, exudes the perfect tone for a character wrapped in mystery. His big number "I've Alive" is a showstopper - his vocals are outstanding and his investment in the character is remarkably impressive - and the audience agreed as he was greeted with thunderous applause. Zachary Zain doubles as Gabe.
Filling out the rest of the cast, and the only characters outside the Goodman family, are Sean Ryan as a stoner who becomes Natalie's support system and Donald J. Dowdell as Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden. Ryan's stoner voice teetered on monotone, however, as the story progressed he found his footing and believably played a boy who is forced to step up to prevent the girl he loves from self-destruction.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dowdell portrays Diana's two very different doctors - one, a standard psychiatrist who appears apathetic and the other, Dr. Madden, a man who truly wants to dig down deep into Diana's psyche to unearth what the basis of her depressions and delusions is.
Ms. Berger and Mr. Dowdell are powerful in the uneasy number "Make Up Your Mind" in which Dr. Madden uses hypnotherapy as an instrument to provide hidden exposition. He also seemlessly portrays one of Diana's delusions as a manic rock star as a nice dose of (well needed) comic relief.
Comedy aside, his insistence of ElectroconvulsiveTherapy at one point in the show deeply discredits the character, who before a specific incident was inspired by holistic approaches. While ECT, as it is referred to, is still commonly used and the stigma behind it is often unfounded since many patients of depression and other ailments have found aid from its impact. Ultimately there are many other intensive methods as doctors' disposal and I find it hard to swallow that a doctor would not make an attempt to try a few more alternative methods. This would not be an issue if later on ECT did not become a symbol of destruction of the mind and a comparative point for addition. I must also comment that this criticism is only valid since the show bases itself in a realistic situation and in order to continue that tone such medical procedures addressed in the show's book should reflect its attempt for realism.
I cannot finish this review without giving a shout out to the inspired lighting by director Tony Frangipane. The colors blasted on the scrim are direct symbols for the tones of each scene. In one particularly stomach churning moment the lighting is used to represent blood, which breaks the line from stagecraft into reality as the actor cleaning it up wrings a bucket of water infused with red.
Overall, this is an important production that I would implore audiences unfamiliar with the material to experience. It's a ride of catharsis as you escalate through heartache, joy, content and another thousand emotions. Although I do not agree with many of its messages - the villainization of medication and the suggestion of leaving established support systems - "Next to Normal" continues to be the musical that has made the biggest impact on me and it is always fascinating to see different interpretations.
I applaud CAP for partnering with the Clinical Psychology Program at LIU Post. They even included a small pamphlet about bipolar depression in the playbill.
These partnerships are vital to promoting socially progressive community theatre with productions like "Next to Normal."
*I must heed warning to anyone who has experienced recent grief of loss in their life as the content in the show may be extremely triggering. Although my review does not reveal the plot in its entirety I would implore anyone questioning whether they can handle the subject material to read further into the complete story of the show to determine if they are ready to view very difficult subject matter.
Director: Tony Frangipane
Musical Director: Rich Giordano
Technical Director: Thomas McKenna
Stage Manager: Diane Marmann
Set Design: Danny Amy
Lighting: Tony Frangipane
Production Photos by Diana Marmann