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BWW Reviews: NEXT TO NORMAL Electrifies Vermillion

I was fortunate enough to see a showing of the National Tour of Next To Normal with Alice Ripley at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in 2012; I am also a proud USD theatre graduate, so when I took my seat in the Wayne S. Knutson Theatre on the campus of The University Of South Dakota, I knew this show had a lot to live up to. Luckily enough for me, it exceeded my expectations in many ways.

Next To Normal (music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey) tells the story of the Goodman family-father Dan, daughter Natalie, son Gabe, mother Diana-as they try to maneuver their way through Diana's mental illness. The show tackles the taboo topic honestly, sugar coating nothing. It leaves the audience questioning society's view of the oftentimes hard-to-understand disease. "What happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my blood, but in my soul?" is the central question of the show, forcing the audience to ask: when tragedy strikes, what decides who falls and who overcomes? Matthew Nesmith, director of USD's production of Next To Normal, states in his director's notes that he and the cast worked closely with mental health professionals throughout the state in order to accurately portray the family's struggle with Diana's illness. This hard work pays off, as this production thoughtfully portrays mental illness in an authentic and accurate light.

USD's production was double cast, a choice I questioned at first; however, after seeing the show I realized that because of the small cast and the educational theatre aspect, more than just six students deserved the chance to play these amazing characters. The physical, vocal, and emotional demands of the show may also have been a deciding factor. Despite this weight on the young performers' shoulders, the cast I saw was like a well-oiled machine; every actor held his or her own and was very well cast. Each actor was dynamic and the ensemble work was amazing.

You cannot discuss Next To Normal, though, without first discussing vocal stamina. There is very little dialogue in this show, which makes every song vitally important in telling the story and moving the action along. Written in the contemporary "rock musical" style, the cast was challenged at every turn. Music Direction by Chris Larson was spot on: each actor's voice was perfectly suited to the stylistic demands of the show. Their vocal placement and resonance was pitch perfect, a pleasure to listen to throughout. I was particularly blown away during the song "Catch Me I'm Falling," an impressive example of ensemble work. Every character held their own while flawlessly blending voices and stories.

Next To Normal comes out of the gate like a high-powered locomotive and demands that the actors be not only primed and ready, but deeply emotionally invested from the start. The first half of Act One felt like a warm up at times, but when Natalie (Brianna Bernard) belted out "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," the show hit its stride. After that song the transitions were smooth and the action was hard hitting.

As the central figure of the show, Diana (played by Lindsay Qualls) has the biggest and most complex emotional journey. Qualls tackles the role with maturity and expertise far beyond her years, allowing the audience to love and support Diana despite her pitfalls as mother and wife. The calm to Diana's storm is husband Dan, played by Steve Schaeffer. The definition of cool under pressure, Schaeffer's character was rich and vibrant: as far as I'm concerned, he never took a misstep. In the final moments of the show, when Dan's heart is ripped from his chest, Schaeffer took us there. His raw, purposefully flawed character was gut-wrenching in the best possible way, and his vocal abilities, as well as his acting choices, were impressive at every turn.

The rest of the small ensemble consisted of Brianna Bernard, whose portrayal of Natalie was strong and solid; Kristan Asfeldt as Gabe, whose vocal abilities were very impressive, though Asfeldt has a theatrical gift that at times I wish he was more confident in; Lukas Ptacek as the loveable and steadfast Henry; and Kelsey Mitteness as Dr. Fine/Madden. Every member of the cast had standout moments, moments in which I saw skill, ability, and the certainty of a bright theatrical future for each.

As a theatrical training ground, The University Of South Dakota stands by its catchword: Extraordinary. This production was brave and real. Nesmith put a challenge in front of these students and led them to a piece of theatre that is both beautiful and robust. Every aspect of the production was thoughtfully planned: from the lighting design (Anthony Pellecchia) to the set (Natalie Hining), every piece added to the askew and disjointed feel of the central family.

Mental illness is a taboo topic in today's culture: we avoid it, we fear it, we deny it. However, Next To Normal lets its audiences see the reality of a family with mental illness; you see the struggle, the heartache, the love and, in the end, the light. The Goodman family reminds us that the desire to be "normal" may not be all it's cracked up to be; maybe, though, we can strive for next to normal, which is close enough to normal to get by. Do yourself a favor and go see this show. If these six performers are the future of South Dakota theatre, we are in good hands. Well done Coyotes: you made this alum proud.

The show still runs October 1-4 @ 7:30pm and October 5th @ 2pm

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From This Author - Ellie Livingston

Ellie Alayne is an actor and teacher who has been working professionally for 10 years. A native of South Dakota who graduated with a Bachelors (read more...)