Review: An Emotionally Stirring and Powerful NEXT TO NORMAL Rocks Keegan Theatre

By: Jun. 22, 2016
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Great theatre not only entertains, it pushes boundaries and provokes thought.

Next to Normal may not have Hamilton's name recognition; however it easily ranks as one of the greatest musicals of this century. Provocative and funny, topical and emotionally stirring, it's the musical art form at its best. DC theatergoers now have a fantastic opportunity to see the 2010 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama in a powerful, yet intimate, production at Keegan Theatre.

What makes Next to Normal consequential is its approachability and depth. We all probably know a family like the Goodmans, an attractive, middle class, nuclear family living in the suburbs. There's the father, Dan (Chad Wheeler), and high-school aged children Gabe (David Landstrom) and Natalie (Caroline Dubberly) who are struggling to take care of their mother, Diana (Kari Ginsburg). While she may seem "normal" upon first glance, Diana's battle is not with her kids or husband, career or life choices; it's with mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder.

Mental illness is not an easy topic to musicalize, and yet Next to Normal triumphs in it's storytelling in a way that few musicals do. The credit goes to Brian Yorkey's stirring lyrics and poignant book and Tom Kitt's frenetic rock-based score.

Yorkey's book doesn't preach or set an agenda, it tells a story familiar to many of us; a family taking care of one of their own. His lyrics are direct and insightful, balanced by bits of humor interlaced with moments of pain Diana's condition causes herself and others. The result allows us to objectively view her story as we formulate our own thoughts on the effects of mental health on family life and society.

Kitt's score has its foundation in rock; however it is layered with elements of contemporary country and folk music. The latter, used for more introspective moments, is especially poignant in Diana's soul-searching Act I solo, "I Miss the Mountains." Whereas the rock basis of the score often highlights the tension within the Goodman family.

When Next to Normal, which had its 2008 pre-Broadway tryout at Arena Stage, was last in Washington on its national tour at the Kennedy Center, the show featured a skeletal two-tiered set. However, for such a small show the Eisenhower Theatre seemed to swallow the production. Keegan Theatre's space is a perfect fit for the production. While the set contains multiple levels, Mathew Keenan's design seems greatly influenced by M. C. Escher's "Relativity," with the multiple staircases symbolizing the dysfunction in the household.

Essential for Next to Normal's success is a dynamic performance by its leading lady. This production, luckily, has two in Ginsberg and Dubberly.

Ginsberg's Diana is perfectly nuanced, capitalizing on the humor and weight of Diana's situation. Yes, humor, because while she may suffer from bipolar disorder, that does not preclude her from making dry observations such as, "Valium is my favorite color." Vocally, Ginsberg is impressive, not attempting to copy Alice Ripley's Tony winning performance and making Diana her own. She's at her peak commanding the production with the anthem "You Don't Know" and the electrically defiant "Didn't I See This Movie?"

It's easy to write-off teenagers as snarky, but Dubberly's performance is sheer perfection. An over-achiever struggling to cope with her mother, she's able to capture Natalie's hurt and ultimate growth. The level of depth, introspection and emotion Dubberly provides Natalie with is amazing.

As Diana's longsuffering husband, Wheeler's performance amazingly captures Dan's angst and frustration. Living on "a latte and prayer" he's ready for normalcy, unaware of what that might entail.

Landstrom is haunting and devilish as Gabe. His story is the show's great revelation, thought I won't convey what that entails. Nevertheless, he's hypnotic with his Act I declaration "I'm Alive" and scornful with his searing "Aftershocks" in Act II.

Completing the cast is Christian Montgomery's thoughtful performance as Henry, Natalie's stoner boyfriend. Montgomery and Dubberly are sweet and tender together, demonstrating the ability to love and grow through all life's trials and tribulations.

Finally, Scott Ward Abernethy portrays Diana's psychiatrist Doctor Goodwin who reveals both the promise and frustration of attempting to treat mental illness. Nevertheless, Abernethy delivers his performance with a tone that infers his character's desire to help Diana and resignation at not having the perfect cure.

Directors Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith's best work is when showing the juxtaposition between Natalie's relationship with Henry and that of her parents. Indeed, the entire production design is well integrated, with Allan Sean Week's lighting design infusing Diana's various mood-swings and enhancing the terrific seven-piece orchestra under the direction of Jake Null. Adding to the familiar nature of the story is Alison Johnson's rather contemporary costume design. We're led to believe that the story could take place in any middle class neighborhood and Johnson's design makes that point.

Next to Normal's plot doesn't make it an easy musical to stage or a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Nevertheless, Keegan deserves immense credit for a production that is intimate and stirring, one that had Tuesday's opening night audience captivated.

Runtime: Two and a half hours with one intermission. Please note, there is no late seating.

Next to Normal runs thru July 10th at Keegan Theatre - 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For tickets please click here.

Photo: Kari Ginsburg. Credit: C.Stanley Photography


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