BWW Reviews: NEXT TO NORMAL at Buzz Theater/Old Paramus Reformed Church

Next to Normal: Buzz Theater Productions at the Old Paramus Reformed Church

Kazuo Ishiguro in his novel Never Let Me Go wrote: "Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly.... The memories I value most, I don't ever see them fading." And therein lies the central premise of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's 2009 Broadway Tony and Pulitzer winning musical "Next to Normal" which has been revived for the weekend by Buzz Theater Productions at the Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Diana (Randi Seffinger) holds too tightly to her memories threatening the fiber of her family life - son Gabe (Anthony Crouchelli) and especially her largely ignored 16 year-old daughter Natalie (Anna Nicole Ventor) and her husband Dan (Matthew Haines). Natalie flirts with stoner Henry (Robert Snyder) a biblical serpent - especially with his ability to render an ordinary apple into a bong. While Dan whisks Diana to a series of Doctors (Brendan J. Bartlett) to free her from her past. Heavy doses of pharmaceuticals and electro shock therapy -propel the family toward potential normalcy - despite Diana's losing 19 years of memories. This description really doesn't do justice to Kitt and Yorkey's original creation, which is ripe with intense musical numbers of longing, denial, memory, connection, and love.

The production on the whole is wonderfully sung especially in "A Light in the Dark" and "Maybe (Next to Normal)". The group numbers blend the amazing voices and bring down the house - notably the soaring finale "Light."

Bartlett brings a deft Mephistophelian verve to his performance - sending a firm warning sign to anyone in his care, enlivening his songs and quieter moments caring for Diana and Dan.

Director Reegan McKenzie slows the pace and tempo a bit from the Broadway production which lets numbers like Diana's fear of electroshock therapy ("Didn't I See This Movie") play cleanly and clearly. With minimal props, cleverly choreographed moments and a powerful band, McKenzie maintains the intensity and delivers solidly entertaining theatrics.

Each cast member has distinct moments. Sellinger and Ventor in "Superboy & Invisible Girl" movingly convey the loss of the neglect. Crouchelli's Gabe is all menace and shadow to Diana but it pays off beautifully in "I am the One" his confrontation with Dan late in Act 2. Haines renders quiet hope and determination to piece his and Diana's life together while failing to see the potential for longer-term damage. While Seffinger's Diana offers a nuanced performance cleverly showing a kaleidoscope of anger, fear, yearning, sorrow, guilt and the memory of what must have once been love in every note she sings. Snyder conveys equal parts hero, villain, and lover while attempting to remain a constant in Natalie's life.

Backing the production is the hefty musical direction of Greg Paradis. The seven-piece band is tight and energetic, nicely supporting the performers and rendering each song distinct and powerful.

Next to Normal is a wonderfully written and performed musical that acts as a prism into the lives of those dealing with mental illness and the effects it has on family. It's adult themes - home, memory, relationships and the kaleidoscope of emotion touches the audience in a way few shows ever can.

Original musicals have long been tortured and mistreated on Broadway. Kitt and Yorkey's current show "If/Then" closes in mere weeks. These two productions are adventurous thematic bookends that equally deserve longer runs.

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