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BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Elmwood Playhouse

Musicals dealing with mental illness may not, at least on the surface, seem to be the wisest choices for a local theater company. But Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning "Next to Normal" is a meaty show with meaty roles - several of them in fact; the kind that actors salivate over. Elmwood Playhouse in Nyack has a long and celebrated history of choosing difficult material and delivering amazing results. Their current production of "Next to Normal" is no exception as the first-rate cast brought what could be a very dour show, vividly to life.

"Next to Normal" is one of a new generation of musicals that deal with difficult issues and ask hard questions. Composer Tom Kitt's music is rich and diverse, covering and coloring a number of hyper-tense scenes that could easily have become "eye-rollingly" silly, but never do. Still, the more traditional parts of the score lend themselves far better to conveying real emotion that do the more hard rocking numbers. Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) clearly intended his book for mature audiences, and it's a rich tapestry of powerfully moving lyrics with just a touch of irony and humor to diffuse the tension.

Diana, the principal character of the show, suffers from some combination of bipolar disorder, manic depression, and any number of other conditions. From the start we learn that she is under heavy medication that is barely keeping her together. She chronicles her time under treatment in term such as: "the year of too much lithium." She wanders aimlessly through her life trapped in an emotional limbo from which she periodically explodes in unpredictable ways. She's haunted by a personal tragedy that may have triggered her illness or possibly just exacerbated it, but it becomes clear as the story progresses that it is the central and defining issue of the show.

Former scientist, turned performer (I kid you not!) MIRAN ROBARTS brings Diana to life in a most convincing fashion. As the middle-class wife and mother who never really feels anything anymore, she wanders through life only half alive. Ms. Robarts' bell-clear soprano showed great dynamic and emotional range as her Diana alternately probed the depths of her soul in intimate reflection and soared through almost manic outbursts. "I Miss the Mountains" presents Diana detailing in achingly beautiful lines how the leveling effects of her pharmacological cocktail have robbed her of all the highs and lows of life. Her duets with RICH GOLDSTEIN as her ever-patient husband, Dan, and COLEMAN CUMMINGS as her mysterious son Gabe, were especially heart-felt, conveying the almost unbearable anguish they are forced to live with.

Mr. Goldstein poignantly displays all the painful desperation of a man trying to be sensitive and supportive of his wife, while holding his family together. His touching "He's Not Here" reveals a critical plot line and sets up the juxtaposition of "Better Than Before" where he failingly tries to put a positive spin on events.

KATIE SONDERMEYER, as Diana and Dan's daughter Natalie, delivered all of the expected uncertainties of a teenager struggling with adolescent angst against the pressure-packed back drop of an unstable home. The role begins with annoyingly stereotypical actions, but soon develops into a critical foil for the drama between her parents. Sondermeyer was a strong presence throughout, showing Natalie as thoughtful and thoughtless, selfish and selfless, painfully naïve and mercifully wise. Her final scene with her father was heartbreakingly beautiful. Natalie has a stoner, wannabe boyfriend named Henry, amiably played by ALEX MARTINEZ. Henry also begins the show in fairly "central casting" manner, but also evolves into an important positive force in Natalie's life and by extension into her family.

TOM MAZZARELLA rounded out the cast playing two doctors, one a not-so-subtle, laugh-inducing "Rock Star" of a doctor and the other a far more serious medical professional who prescribes the controversial treatment that the entire show hinges upon. Mazzarella brought a calm confidence to the role and provided the stability needed to keep the entire family from just flying away. He was particularly strong in the ensemble number "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling," which brought the story in and out of focus to emotionally stirring effect.

Director DEBRA LEE FAILLA did a fine job moving the players in appropriately kinetic fashion around the multi-level set designed by DAVID JULIN. Failla deftly provided multi-layered perspectives, both emotionally and physically, giving her cast space for the often parallel actions required by the story. MIKE GNAZZO's subtle lighting clearly accentuated all the right elements

"Next to Normal" has won every imaginable theater award, but it is not an "actor-proof" show. It requires a top notch cast of singing actors and an extremely even-handed director. Luckily, Elmwood's production has both. It's one of the best musicals they've mounted in a long time.

- Peter Danish

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From This Author Peter Danish