Review: Tampa Repertory Theatre's Astonishing NEXT TO NORMAL

Runs Thru June 16th

By: Jun. 01, 2024
Review: Tampa Repertory Theatre's Astonishing NEXT TO NORMAL
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“You wonder which is worse--the symptom or the cure?” --Gabe in “Aftershocks” from NEXT TO NORMAL

I was a wild child.  In the 1970s, the word “hyperactivity” was used instead of ADHD, and when I was nine or ten I was deemed by doctors to have this thing, this disorder if you will,  called “hyperactivity.”  I was prescribed Ritalin, and suddenly Perky Pete transformed into Debbie Downer.  I became gloomy, cheerless, and I literally started stabbing empty milk cartons with a butcher knife.  My parents immediately took me off the Ritalin.  “I would rather him be happy and hyper than dour and depressed,” my mother said.  

I thought of my childhood and my brief stint into the land of Methylphenidate after watching NEXT TO NORMAL, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a woman suffering from bipolar disorder.  In it, doctors keep prescribing a myriad of meds, hypnosis and ultimately electroconvulsive therapy, and Diana Goodman, the show’s grieving protagonist, starts losing her identity. Her bipolarism affects her family, as do the so-called cures. In the end, she must determine who she wants to be, what she wants out of life, and what constitutes the title term “normal”--if such a thing really exists. 

There are twists in the story, and I don’t want to give them away.  Leave it to say that bipolarism is tearing up the Goodman household.  Diana may be on a manic high, making so many sandwiches in a fast-motion fever that she starts pouring the bread on the floor and making them there.  Her husband and her neglected teen daughter just can’t take it. This leads to Diana’s roller coaster journey through meds and procedures, prescribed by doctors of varying ethics, which ultimately leads to the vanishing of her personality and her past in the process.  There is another character in NEXT TO NORMAL, Diana’s son, Gabe, who may hold the secret to Diana’s grasp of reality.

NEXT TO NORMAL, Tampa Rep’s current production, is as serious as musicals get.  You can say this about it: You won’t find falling chandeliers, founding fathers debating in hip-hop, or Abba tunes anywhere near it.  (Thankfully it's not called Bipolar: The Musical!)  Though its subject matter may be as stark as it gets, it’s one hell of an entertaining ride with some of the best musical theatre songs of the 21st Century: “I Miss the Mountains,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” “Didn’t I See This Movie,” “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling,” “Maybe (Next to Normal),” and “I’m Alive.”    

Over the years I have seen various productions of NEXT TO NORMAL, all with different strengths and weaknesses, but this production at Tampa Rep is hands down the tightest, most effective, and most emotionally galvanizing version I have yet experienced.  Every performance is spot on, taking the work to the next level, and the pace is locomotive (but not too fast that we miss any of the nuances).  When Act 1 ended, I was shocked that an hour had already passed by so quickly; I was so caught up in a storyline (one that I had seen quite often) that at times it was as though I was watching it anew.  I don’t ever recall the show seeming so seamless.  It’s thrilling in the way that only theatre can be; it holds a mirror up to some ugly truths--psychological disorders, family dysfunction, medical ethics, and the struggle with grief--and it does so with aplomb and grace.

As Diana, Alexis Carra-Girbes is a revelation.  The show rests, or rather jumps (because this show could never rightfully rest), on her mighty shoulders. We sense her moments of panic, of longing, of terror, of solitude, of sheer intensity, and of loss.  It’s probably the best role for an actress of this century (and correctly garnered Alice Ripley a Tony playing it fifteen years ago), and whoever portrays it has to go "all in" emotionally. Ms. Carra-Girbes certainly does.  She’s so good that we allow ourselves to follow her excursion into this personal and familial hell; we trust her to “go there,” so we, the audience, will go with her as well.  We know there’s a payoff, even if the payoff is, ironically, that there is no payoff. Her vocals are off the charts, and she can sing a single word--“free,” for instance--and it wilts your soul.  She’s always in the moment, connecting with the other cast members, forcing them to connect with her, no matter how far the character's bipolarism has taken her.  It’s astounding work.

As her husband, Dan, Jim Sorensen is in top form, both emotionally and vocally.  There’s a moment near the end where he lets go, and the tears flow, and we in the audience hold our collective breaths as we tear up as well.  For much of the show, Dan seems like a rather thankless role, but with Mr. Sorensen inhabiting the part, he seems to seethe with humanity and the frustrating need for understanding.  The character is at a loss as to what to do with his wife, and we understand this struggle, although he’s far too appeasing  when he  signs the paper allowing the ECT on his wife for my tastes.  But Mr. Sorensen makes it work.

As Diana’s doctors, Nick Perez-Hoop gets to show off his versatility, creating two distinct personalities.  Although he’s an anchor to the show, a voice of calm that is well-intentioned or not,  there’s a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde On Energy Supplements moment of his in one of Diana’s hallucinations that is both scary and funny; it winningly showcases Mr. Perez-Hoop’s special brand of frantic unpredictability.    

This NEXT TO NORMAL also boasts three young performers who stand out and take the stage by storm; they all come from local colleges, which proves that these university programs are doing something incredibly right.

As Gabe,  Ben Sutherland has rock star vocals that pierce and shake the walls and make us glad to be alive.  Tall and looking not unlike a star high school senior, there’s something wonderfully off about him, an Eamon Ferren vibe, as he slinks about the stage, creeping behind Diana. His “I’m Alive,” one of the standout songs, is brilliantly sung; I just wish he seemed more alive during it physically, rather than just crouching down like a gargoyle and tightly gripping a rail above the stage (he does this a lot). 

Max Dalton, as the stoner boyfriend of Diana’s daughter, exudes likability.  It’s the irony of the show that a young man who can create a bong out of an apple also becomes a voice of sanity. Mr. Dalton is so charming in the part that we feel safe for Diana’s daughter and enjoy every moment between the two of them.   

Mariela Zeno, as daughter Natalie Goodman, is a major find.  With her soulful eyes and incredible energy, she delivers a bravura turn, one of the best performances of the year.  She not only holds her own with those two forces of nature--Ms. Carra-Girbes’ Diana and Mr. Sorensen’s Dan--but she dares to surpass them.  Her acting and connecting with the other cast members is astonishing, and her voice is a dream.  Although the character by design always seems to be exiting the stage in an eye-rolling huff way too often (then again, isn’t that what annoyed teenagers do?), Ms. Zeno is so good that I want to see her in every local musical if possible.

The vocals are incredible, with some amazing harmonies.  I wondered if the microphones would be too echoey and bombastic in the intimate setting of the USF Theatre Centre, but they fared quite well; the music never seemed too loud and not once drowned out the performers onstage.  The small band, led by music director Juan Rodriguez on piano, is glorious. They include Paul Stoddart on guitar, Richard Jimenez on bas, Iris Jones on violin, Matthew Rothfarb on the cello, and on drums, Ian Goodman (the perfect last name for someone associated with NEXT TO NORMAL).

Director Emilia Sargent has created a beautiful piece of theatre here where everything clicks--the acting, the singing, the pace.  Chris Pyfrom’s sparse set design utilizes every aspect of the black box performance space, not just in various locations stage left or right, but up and down in two distinct levels. Keith Eisenstadt’s lighting design is evocative and adds to the show without overwhelming it with too many special effects (even in the strobe-lit zeal of the electroshock therapy scene).            

At a time when it seems that every local theatre is producing a musical, Tampa Rep has a show that is all aces, the one that needs to be seen--the stellar cast, crew, music, and story all come together to earn every standing ovation it will receive.

As for the show itself, yes, I have some misgivings.  Even though the musical is prime for Mental Health Awareness Month and one of the best of this century, there is a troublesome undercurrent of anti-medicine bias, which could be disquieting in our post-covid, anti-vaxx age. It’s an interesting debate to have, I guess, but is NEXT TO NORMAL even debating it at all? To be clear, the ending is left unclear.  One of the things I admire about NEXT TO NORMAL is that it provides no easy answers, no pat solutions…the way life really is and the way great art should be.

Tampa Rep’s NEXT TO NORMAL plays at the USF Theatre Centre until June 16th.

Photo Courtesy of Stage Photography of Tampa LLC--SPOT


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