Monday, April 3, 2017

CT Theater Review: Next to Normal -- TheaterWorks

David Garris, Christiane Noll and Maya Keleher. Photo Lanny Nagler
Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
TheaterWorks
Extended again through May 14

By  Lauren Yarger
Presenting something a little different form the norm has proved to be a successful move for TheaterWorks, where an excellent run of the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Next to Normal has been extended through May 7.

Broadway star Christian Noll (Chaplin, Ragtime, Jekyll and Hyde) stars in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's rock musical about Diana Goodman, a woman struggling with bi-polar disorder and suicidal thoughts. Australian sensation David Harris plays her husband, Dan.

This is not an easy musical, on many levels. Technically, the show requires really good singers who can belt; emotionally, it's hard to watch Diana's illness wreak havoc on her and her family. She has struggled for 16 years and hasn't been much of a wife or mother. Dan made a vow, though when they married and stands by her as it becomes apparent that she needs to adjust her meds. Again.

Her doctors (both played by J.D. Daw) try talking treatments, various medications and even shock therapy, but nothing seems to help long term. Growing up in this house has its effects on daughter, Natalie impressive newcomer Maya Keleher), who turns both to overachieving at school, drugs and new boyfriend, Henry (Nick Sacks), to escape the fear that she might end up just like her mother. Meanwhile, all of the problems in Diana and Dan's marriage might not be the result of her illness. They have unresolved issues with regards to their son, Gabe (John Cardoza).

The libretto contains some of the smartest lyrics I ever have heard in a musical. developing the characters, their relationships and telling the story, which contains some humor to break up the rather serious and troubling reality of the family's situation. 

Blended with music that senses the emotions being experienced, the show takes us on a rocking emotional roller coaster that is at once satisfying and heartbreaking.

The sensation that you're screaming
But you never make a sound,
Or the feeling that you're falling
But you never hit the ground—
It just keeps on rushing at you
Day by day by day by day...
You don't know
You don't know
What it's like to live that way.

Director Rob Ruggiero expertly focuses on the relationships. The night I attended those relationships seemed less cohesive in the first part of the show, but with the song "You Don't Know," they bonded as though they had been pulled together with super glue and were dynamic throughout. 

The six-person band, under the direction of Adam Souza, plays more than 30 numbers housed on stage behind Wilson Chin's ingenious two-level, rotating set lined with bookcases and lights to create the family's house as well as other locations. Ruggiero also uses the house aisles, reinforcing the bond the audience feels with the characters, but unfortunately eliminates the blood from Diana's suicide attempt. The result is that we lose some of the reality and heartbreak of the situation when Dan cleans it up. Without experiencing the gruesome reality of the blood, Dan can seem just like a helpful husband chipping in with the household chores as he rinses out clear rags into a bucket.

Getting huge kudos for advancing the storytelling is the superb Lighting Design by John Lasiter, who delivers some of the best lighting I have seen on any stage any where. Mood is depicted, as well as emotions of characters. The lights seem to develop their own case of schizophrenia as they morph into a rainbow of personalities of color and intensity. In one scene, Diana is slipping away: Dan is in full light, Diana is dim and the past that is pulling her is in the shadows. Exquisite.

Noll brings an almost playful quality to Diana to expand the layers of the character who can other wise seem too depressed or crazy. It's always a pleasure to hear her voice and she doesn't disappoint on the the belting, especially for "I Miss the Mountains" (you can listen to her sing this here.) All of the voices are excellent, in fact. Connecticut audiences know Noll from Goodspeed and concerts with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra; Harris also appeared at Goodspeed in Anything Goes and was Jean Valjean in Les Miserable at Connecticut Repertory. This production marks Connecticut native Keleher's professional debut.

Don't miss this one -- if you are a fan, you will enjoy and if you never have seen this musical, you probably won't see a better version.

Next to Normal touches hearts at TheaterWorks, 223 Pearl St., Hartford through May 7. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $35-$75: theaterworkshartford.org; 860-527-7838.

Additional credits: Tricia Barsamian (Costume Design), Ed Chapman (Sound Design).

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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