BWW Reviews: NEXT TO NORMAL At Center Stage is Electrifying

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One must give Center Stage Artistic Director kudos for bringing back a musical for the 2014-15 season...and what a choice he made.

He brings the musical NEXT TO NORMAL, which won three Tony Awards in 2009 (it got beat by BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL for Best Musical) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He selected acclaimed director David Schweizer (remember his delightful BOYS FROM SYRACUSE?) who has assembled a superlative cast.

I recall first seeing this Brian Yorkey (Lyricist and Librettist) and Tom Kitt (Composer) piece at the Arena Stage when it was in Crystal City, VA in a room at the Marriott Hotel while the theater was undergoing construction in DC. During the show which featured Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer (one of the original JERSEY BOYS) and Aaron Tveit, I kept elbowing my wife, "This is amazing!" like we were shocked. Yorkey and Kitt are very talented. They are currently represented on Broadway with the Idina Menzel hit IF/THEN.

The musical opens with a piano riff and then turns into a tune that may remind you of TOMMY, the hit musical by the Who. NEXT TO NORMAL is almost completely sung through with a wide variety of music from rock to jazz to blues to ballads.

When you enter the intimate Head Theatre you will notice the clever two tier set (three on Broadway) by Caleb Wertenbaker. In the back of the second level on stage right you'll notice Joe McCarthy on Drums/Percussion and Chris Hofer on Bass. (Pay attention to Hofer. When he reaches for the electric bass you know a rock song is coming and when he picks up the big bass fiddle, well, it's not rock. Hidden next to the staircase leading to the first level is Cellist Kirsten Walsh. On stage left is Jonathan Rogerson on Guitar, Jose Cueto on Violin/Synth, and finally Darren Cohen who conducts and is on the piano. Since I was sitting on the right side of the balcony I got a glimplse of his conducting from the two large TV monitors hanging from the balcony. What a masterful job he does and what a great crew of musicians.

The play deals with the struggles of a suburban mother struggling with bipolar disorder and the effect it has on her family. Thankfully, playing the leading role of Diana is the incredibly talented Ariela Morgenstern who is a trained opera singer and is equally a terrific actress. She covers the wide variety of music exceptionally well.

Playing her husband Dan, struggling to deal with her illness with understanding is Michael Winther. I recall Winther as "Harry" in the Broadway production of MAMMA MIA! singing "Thank You for the Music." Winther was last at Center Stage in Schwizer's BOYS FROM SYRACUSE. Here, Winther just plain shines in this tough and difficult role as Dan. He portrays a sensitive and yet helpless husband and father and what a voice! He is just stunning in his rendition of "Who's Crazy" and in the delightful duets he has with Morgenstern. They work beautifully together.

Playing the couple's daughter "Natalie" is Kally Duling. It's a tough role since she forsees a life similar to that of her mother. Matthew Rodin plays "Henry", a self-described stoner, and is Natalie's love interest. The astonishing Justin Scott Brown tackles the complicated role of son "Gabe". Remember his name. I see a great future for him. Matt Lutz tackles the roles of Diana's psychiatrists with gusto and flair.

David Burdick once again does a superlative job as Costume Designer. Special kudos to Lighting Designer Aaron Black who does a masterful job. This is his Center Stage debut and I'm sure he will return. Driscoll Otto is responsible for the clever projections. There is also enjoyable movement thanks to Choreographer Dan Knechtges and Associate Choreographer Jessic Hartman.

I just plainly love this show and I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to return to see it again!

When I wrote my review of NTN for the Arena production, I mentioned I wished I could put on the CD of the show and listen on my way home. Well, now, anyone can listen to the CD and I highly recommend getting it prior to seeing the show. It will add so much to your enjoyment of the show.

NEXT TO NORMAL closes Nov. 16, 2014. For tickets, call 410-332-0033 or visit


I just read on this site that the composers Kitt and Yorkey have written a new musical based on the highly acclaimed independent 2007 film "The Visitor". A private industry reading will be presented this December.

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From This Author Charles Shubow