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Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Playmakers Theatre--Perfecting Imperfection!

Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Playmakers Theatre--Perfecting Imperfection!
Photo Courtesy: Derek Wohltmann

The only musical to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Next to Normal, is finishing up its' final weekend at Playmakers Theatre in Covington, Louisiana, and it has people talking in a not so normal way. Director, Justin Lapeyrouse made it his personal mission to make sure of that! This unique musical tackles the difficult subject of a family coping with mental illness, and Lapeyrouse, pulling from his own life experiences, felt a responsibility to take the powerful message even further by striving to make a difference in the community. He teamed up with NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, to not only give back, but along with local professionals, the cast holds a powerful panel discussion with willing audience members after each performance. The goal to raise awareness, open a dialogue, and offer a path to recover seemed like a logical way to make this important show even more impactful. The hugely talented cast of six is wowing audiences with powerhouse deliveries of the unforgettable Tony Award winning score. They gracefully handle the delicate and dark subject of how this all-too-common crisis affects the affected and those who love them. Next to Normal explores issues that haunt families, and pulls back the curtain on the problem literally and figuratively. The hope is that awareness, conversations and acceptance can help families cope. The award winning book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, cast light on how hiding behind the false image of a "perfect" family complicates the problem for those dealing with the issue. The score by Tom Kitt, will have you on the edge of your seat the entire show-hopefully gripping a box full of tissues.

Next to Normal is the story of Diana Goodman, Lisa Keifer, who developed difficulties after the untimely death of her son, and has been trying to function with bipolar, depressive disorder, and delusional episodes for years. Keifer, no stranger to the stage, and Survivor Season 9 cast member, brings a stunning performance as Diana, bringing this traumatized housewife to life in a relatable way. Her vocals are intensely beautiful throughout, especially in her rendition of I Miss the Mountains, where she agonizes over missing the highs and lows of her life after being "robotized" by an array of prescription pills. The progressive illness is tearing the lives of everyone around her apart, assuredly her husband Dan, Shannon Oneal Williams, who emerges as the first casualty of her sickness. Williams' gripping performance pierces our empathetic nature as his futile attempts to help the love of his life continue to fall short. His struggle demands attention to the reality that when one person is diagnosed with an illness, the whole family is inflicted as well.

Science has already proven that mental illness can be a generational curse, and that truth comes to life with Diana's daughter Natalie, Julia Anne Ernst. Her "soundtrack-quality" vocals fuse the audience to the tragedy through the powerful lyrics, while Ernst's authentic performance of unspeakable pain illustrates what awaits the next generation if left untreated. Her normal teenage angst is compounded by her mother's illness, and this Hannan High School Junior's commitment to her craft devours our sense of reality, and captivates the audience with every note, especially during her rendition of Superboy and the Invisible Girl. Ernst, who has trained classically with Opera Singer, Jennifer Mouledous and Dr. Maryann Kyle at the University of Mobile, brings a level of professionalism that is astounding to watch.

The set has the feel of a simple suburban home, yet it smart design encapsulates the feeling that the inhabitants are somehow prisoners of their own dysfunction. As the rest of the cast comes in and out of the Goodman's lives, they bring another layer of talent to the production marking one superb performance after another. Gabe, Alan Talbot, is remarkable as Diana's son, who not only represents the personification of loss, but also the possibility of healing and hope. His robust vocal performance penetrates the room, as he fights for his mother's attention in the powerful lyrics of I am the One. His energetic character lights up the room, as he fills the stage with his dynamic presence. The same can be said for the other young actor Henry, Jacob Johnson who plays Natalie's love interest. His character offers a glimpse of sensibility and lightheartedness in the middle of watching this disease engulf the Goodman family.

One of the most poignant moments in the show is the song,Who is Crazy?/My Psychopharmacologist and I, highlights the unfathomable pharmaceutical spiral that many have been in or know someone who has. The entire cast jumps into the song in a moment of comic realism that hits us in the gut. Diana's physicians, Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden, Christi Simoneaux reflects the jumbled options available to the afflicted, and these fictional, yet realistic characters, are brilliantly portrayed by Simoneaux who takes on the dual rolls showcasing the enormous range of medical cures, as well as this versatile singer's compelling vocal range.

The entire cast made it known that their motivation was two-fold. Most have experienced something similar in their own families, and welcomed the chance to bring awareness to the problem and the programs available to help. These seasoned professionals feel honored to be able to couple doing what they love best, with bringing awareness to an important subject that has barely scratched the surface of public discussion. Next to Normal brings the dark into the light in a literally way, and strives to reflect on the power of the love of family in the midst of this modern incurable dilemma. In a community of "perfect" people, we are all imperfect. Life is not supposed to be easy, and sometimes, the only cure is acceptance and liberation from the judgment. Celebrate each breathe matter how imperfect it may be.

Don't miss this important show. There are only three performances remaining. February 1- 3, 2019 8pm on Friday and Saturday and 2pm Sunday. Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for students. Playmakers now has reserved seating! Pick your seats and buy tickets at

Music Direction by Tiffany Christy and Choreography by Jessica Boudreau


Located approximately 4 miles north of Covington at 19106 Playmakers Rd., off Hwy. 437/ N. Lee Rd. At Playmakers Rd., turn left and follow through the San Souci Forest to the end of the road. You will be directed where to park.

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