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Review: NEXT TO NORMAL Asks the Hard Questions at Manatee Players

Review: NEXT TO NORMAL Asks the Hard Questions at Manatee Players

With a Broadway Caliber Cast, and stellar performances that will leave you with goosebumps, Next to Normal must close on January 29th. defines Bi-Polar Disorder, formally called Manic Depression as a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings including emotional highs (mania or hypomania and lows (depression).

"When you become depressed, you may feel sad or hopeless and lose interest or pleasure in most activities. When your mood shifts to mania or hypomania (less extreme than mania), you may feel euphoric, full of energy, or unusually irritable. These mood swings can affect sleep, energy, activity, judgment, behavior, and the ability to think clearly.

Episodes of mood swings may occur rarely or multiple times a year. While most people will experience some emotional symptoms between episodes, some may not experience any.

Although bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, you can manage your mood swings and other symptoms by following a treatment plan. In most cases, bipolar disorder is treated with medication and psychological counseling (psychotherapy)."

Next to Normal is a 2008 Rock Musical written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. The plot tells the story of a mother (Diana) who struggles with progressive Bipolar Disorder and how managing the disease and its effects take a toll on her family. The award-winning musical covers such topics as depression, grief, suicide, drug abuse, and ethics of modern psychiatry all set against the backdrop of a suburban lifestyle.

Nominated for many outstanding awards for achievement in all areas, and winning The Outer Critics Circle Award for "Best Original Score," The Helen Hayes Award for "Outstanding Non-Resident Production, Outstanding Lead Actress Non-Resident Production, and Outstanding Supporting Performer Non-Resident Production," three Tony Awards for, "Best Original Score, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, and Best Orchestrations," and finally the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Next to Normal is a hard-hitting family drama, set against the backdrop of a rock score making it one of the most inventive new musicals of its time. A marathon for even the most seasoned performer, Next to Normal is a compelling piece of drama that proves not be the easiest pill to swallow for some and can be a sobering reflection for others.

The folks at Manatee Players, inside the Manatee Performing Arts Center, have tackled this behemoth of a musical with expert precision down to the smallest detail. Directed by local Renaissance Man Cory Boyas, who more recently directed Tick Tick Boom for Spanish Lyric Theatre, has once again proved he is one to watch. Always the keenest sense of vision, and through-line in every show he touches, Boyas' direction is clear and exact in science, even if its lead character lives in a fog for the majority of the show. the pacing of a show such as this is crucial because you can lose your audience in an instant, but Boyas provides excellent timing, and a show paced to mere perfection.

Assembling the right cast to bring this dysfunctional family to life is also not the easiest of tasks, and the folks at Manatee Players along with Boyas have assembled a top-notch cast of Broadway Caliber performances.

Leading our cast is the incredibly talented Lauren Butterfield as Diana. Butterfield's Diana is so enthralling, you're hooked from her first entrance. Her "I Miss the Mountains," shows incredible presence and power. At times when more of the mania comes in, her portrayal bordered on not being as believable, in moments, where her vocals almost came across too forced. For me, the depth and believability in Diana comes in the more quiet moments, the moment at the end of the first scene when she's making sandwiches on the floor, the moment when she finds the music box and reflects on the tune found inside. It's the in-between moments, the moments that find Diana lost in her mania, in her head, in the depths of who she is, that is so terrifyingly brilliant it's impossible to look away. This is where Lauren's portrayal excels the most for me. Her strength in every moment to moment propels Diana's plight forward. You feel her vulnerability and reckless abandonment, and Lauren is completely dedicated and driven to tell this story to its fullest extent. A Psychologist by trade Butterfield is dynamic in her portrayal and will leave you completely defenseless. I was in tears following this performance.

As Dan, J. Daniel Lauritzson is steadfast, stoic, and the firm ground to land that Diana needs. His moments of grief and moments of love shine through in every moment. He does his best for his family even in the most trying of moments. His rendition of "Who's Crazy," "How Could I Ever Forget," and "I Am the One," show off how powerful his vocals are. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear moments resembling J. Robert Spencer's performance. J. Daniel is a powerhouse on stage and the absolute perfect Dan. My favorite moments of his performance come in "A Light in the Dark," and "I Am the One Reprise," you truly see the depth of Dan's character in each of these moments. His grief completely crumbles him in Act 2 and J. Daniel's powerful performance is one I will remember for time to come.

Christos Nicholoudis as Gabe is exceptional. From his first moments in "Another Day," I was completely blown away. There is a duet moment between Gabe and Natalie, in that very moment, that sent chills down my spine and goosebumps all over my arms. Christos is so haunting, and alluring in his moments onstage that you absolutely cannot turn away. As the memory character of the story he completely captures your attention and sends you on a journey through the ups and downs of his mother's psyche. His rendition of "I'm Alive," is unlike any version I have heard and you feel the weight of his presence. His vocals remain unmatched here and give Aaron Tveit a run for his money.

Dave Springer as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden is a fine addition to the company. His Dr. Madden is menacing and exacting at the very same time. He only wants the best for his patients, but you feel there is an underlying mystery just brimming on the surface. His moments with Diana are calculated and precise.

As Natalie, Paige Alter is a ringer I never saw coming. Completely blown away from the very start. I could close my eyes and listen to her sing anything. Her Natalie starts out steadfast in her studies, and composition, ready to excel at anything. Then she meets Henry, who breaks down her wall, and shows her what true love is. Earning my vote for Best in Show, this is a young performer that I will move mountains to see perform again. On par with the likes of Lindsay Pearce, Paige soars as Natalie. Her presence on stage, paired with her incredible vocals makes for an unforgettable portrayal and one you should stop everything and see. Her rendition of "Everything Else," and "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," among other moments, will leave you saying wow.

Henry played by Tristan Horta, is everyone's favorite stoner. Horta's performance comes across aloof and clumsy, but full of heart. Exactly the way in which Henry should be portrayed. As far as vocals go, this is the best performance I have seen from him thus far. His moments with Natalie are endearing, and anytime "Hey," or "Perfect for You," happens it creates the perfect interlude/break in the drama. A wonderful addition to the cast, Tristan should be proud of his work here.

Technically beautiful, Manatee Player's production pulls out all the stops in design elements. Ken Mooney's set design is cold/modern and architecturally beautiful, and the perfect rendering of the world for these characters to reside. Michael Pasquini's lighting design blends beautifully with the world and creates some beautifully rendered moments on-stage. The stark contrast of light and dark, warms and cools, take us on a journey through Diana's psyche and truly tell a story all its own. My favorite thing is when lighting and scenic cohesively work hand in hand, creating a character all on their own and its masterfully done here. Caren Brady's beautiful costumes give each character a unique identity all their own. They mimick so close to the Broadway production its uncanny. Creating a world unique to the story of the show can be tasking at best, but as a cohesive unit the folks at Manatee Players, excel in creating Cory Boyas' vision and bringing to life the words of Kitt and Yorkey in a seamless and exquisitely perfected rendering.

As complicated as Next to Normal is in story and design, Cory Boyas and team deliver ten-fold. Of course, a musical as beautiful as this, doesn't come without its problems. No fault to the Director and Company tackling this incredible work, but the problems lie within the story itself. Not to give anything away, but the ending leaves us with a sense of confusion. You never truly get resolution. You get a resounding positive number with, "Light," but the story itself falls flat, and I struggle with Dan and Diana following the close of the show, then we are immediately thrust into this uplifting finale number featuring the whole cast. With a show so raw in emotion, and human-condition you almost feel sort of displaced in a sense.

Next to Normal at Manatee Players is backed by an exceptional live band featuring Aaron Cassette as the Keyboardist/Conductor, Renee Inman on Violin, Tony Rizzo on Guitar, Charles Wright on Cello, John Littlepage on Bass, and John Januszewski on Percussion. The musicians come together to play an exceptionally complicated score with masterful precision.

Next to Normal must close January 29th following their matinee performance. Do yourself the extreme favor by purchasing tickets today to this Broadway Caliber performance. Not a dry eye in the house, Cory Boyas and team have done it again. I feel that Cory Boyas has found his niche in staging Contemporary Rock Musicals, and Next to Normal might just be his best yet.

Tickets available by visiting

"When we open up our lives

Sons and daughters, husbands, wives

Can fight that fight

There will be light

There will be light

There will be light

There will be light."

-Next to Normal Finale

Photo Credit: Diane Broda

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