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NEXT TO NORMAL SOARS ON STAGE AT MIDLAND CENTER FOR THE ARTS

Reviewer: Lisa Purchase

Venue: Midland Center for the Arts

Next to Normal at Midland Center for the Arts is a brave and breathtaking musical journey that delves deep into the anguish of a suburban family grappling with mental illness. Next to Normal invites audiences to feel every emotion, from heart-wrenching sorrow to unexpected moments of levity. 

It’s the story of a seemingly “normal” suburban family — mother Diana, father Dan, son Gabe, and daughter Natalie — shattered by a tragic past, and their various means of coping or not coping with it and each other. While it is Diana’s mental illness at the center of the family dynamics, each family member (plus the additional characters of the Doctors, played by Jacob Salisbury, and the daughter’s boyfriend, Henry, played by Jamie Miller), plays a part in loss, disconnection, duty, denial, grief, ethics in modern psychiatry, and suburban life. 

Director Tommy Wedge brought to the stage a literal interpretation of Diana’s line “The house is spinning.” In a work of mathematical genius, the turntable stage moves the multi-level set and actors with flowing precision, shifting scenes and perspectives, bringing characters together and apart. It transforms the ordinary actions of a household into an extraordinary ballet set to alt-rock music. The actors climb and descend multiple staircases and platforms at the center of the turntable, elevating them above their everyday settings, allowing their perspectives, their interactions, and their vocal performances to soar. The nuanced lighting effects subtly emphasize and color the rapidly shifting scenes, enhancing the emotions and focus of each interaction. This production of Next to Normal is a visual masterpiece.

I mostly sat there with my mouth open, and left the show reeling with the complexity of this emotional powerhouse.

The cast are stellar talents across the board, as each of the six actors serves their character and the story, the vocals and the emotions, with talent and heart. 

Ann Russell-Lutenske commands the stage as the bipolar Diana, navigating the complexities of her character’s mental state while providing a dynamic vocal performance (and navigating some demanding blocking, while spending nearly the entire show onstage). Her portrayal of this tragic but ultimately triumphant character is possibly the best we’ve ever seen from Russell-Lutenske; she brought her decades of acting and singing chops to the stage, as well as developing new ones for this role, resulting in a performance of a lifetime.

Gretchen Shope — as daughter Natalie —  shines as a perfect match to Russell-Lutenske’s talent. The two share a moment of such depth and clarity in their final duet the audience is transported with the actors right into the heart of their connection through pain. It is a moment that transcends acting completely.

Brad Phillips charmingly tackles his role as Diana’s dutiful husband, Dan, portraying a man battling despair and trying to keep his family from falling completely over the edge of the cliff.

Jared Kaufman is a chameleon as their son, Gabe, a smooth operator shifting between light and dark, sympathetic and threatening. 

Jamie Miller (as the breath-of-fresh-air “normal” boyfriend), and Jacob Salisbury (as the two Doctors) both fully complement this ensemble with their vocal talents and effortless portrayals.

The Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are dense, revealing, and intentional, while Tom Kitt’s extraordinary music feels like a callback to the 1990’s rock-opera The Who’s Tommy (based on the 1969 album), with layered storytelling in driving pop anthems, muscular guitar rock, and gorgeous ballads. While the music and lyrics of this Pulitzer-prize and Tony-award -winning show have well-documented (and well-deserved) recognition, this particular production of Next to Normal is a particular work of art. The complex score is flawlessly presented by the six-person orchestra/rock band, and the dense lyrics and layered harmonies are superbly sung. Music Director Jim Hohmeyer and Sound Engineer Caleb Hopper both get massive praise for the fact that I heard every word of this  … the words were clear, the music supported but never overwhelmed the singers, and the emotions of the story came through in the dynamic highs and lows.

There are numerous stand-outs in the show’s 37(!) musical numbers. Russell-Lutenske’s rendition of “I Miss the Mountains” is transcendent and heart-wrenching, a show-stopping ballad sung to perfection. Shope brings tenderness and passion to her “Superboy & the Invisible Girl”(with Kaufman and Russell-Lutenske) and that intense musical connection with Russell-Lutenske in “Maybe”. Phillips’ peppy lead in the ensemble “It’s Gonna Be Good” is a perfect snapshot of his character’s strength and weakness (sung at a frenetic clip to drown out any doubters). Kaufman’s “I’m Alive” rocks the house, with its lyrics revealing his character’s duel nature: “I’m your wish, your dream come true, and I am your darkest nightmare too.” Salisbury’s turn as a sexy crazed rock-god in “My Pshychopharmacologist and I” is hilarious, and Miller’s bizarre but effective comedic seduction in “Perfect for You”brings a sweet sincere lightheartedness to the scene.

Because this show deals so frankly with real mental health issues, there are a number of mental health resources represented in the lobby for patrons to access further information or assistance. These resources are supplemented by a beautiful and thorough dramaturg packet (accessed via QR code in the program) created by Mary Kelly, LMSW. I opened that QR code and was drawn into a wealth of useful information addressing specific mental illnesses, grief and loss, codependency and trauma-bonding. Ms. Kelly’s excellent work assisted the cast in developing their characters and working through their own emotional responses to the material.

An extraordinary script and score, paired with an ambitious and powerful creative team, a monstrously talented cast, top-notch musicians, and a beautifully executed dynamic set all came together to present a truly outstanding production here. As the show progressed, there was less and less applause from the rapt audience. At first the audience seemed dedicated to it: “We shall applaud musical numbers, as we are wont to do.” But it tapered off quickly, as everything was stitched together so beautifully, applause seemed only a distraction to the seamless flow of action and the fabric of the story, and we were better to just sit and wonder at it. The pent-up applause erupted at the end, with a standing ovation.

Next to Normal runs May 17- 26 at Midland Center for the Arts (Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00). There will be a talkback available after the show on May 18 and 26. With a run time of just under two and a half hours (including intermission), tickets can be accessed through the theater’s website at https://www.midlandcenter.org/shows-tickets/next-to-normal-nav/.

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