Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Theater Review: Next to Normal -- MTC

(Left to right:) Jacob Heimer, Juliet Lambert Pratt, Elissa DeMaria and Will Erat. Photo: Kerry Long
Normal is Relative in Family's Battle with Depression
By Lauren Yarger
Music Theatre of Connecticut is presenting a really pleasing Connecticut regional theater premiere of Tony Award winner Next to Normal through Nov. 4 in Westport.

If you're wondering how that super truss framework that depicts the unfinished home and surging brain synapses of the nothing but "normal" household whose story won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama fits on the intimate stage, obviously, it doesn't. Scenic designer Nicholas Schwartz has opted for a gray backdrop with a few basic props. It works, because the story with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and edgy music by Tom Kitt stand up on their own and aren't dependent on flashy sets.

The story follows Diana (a terrific Juliet Lambert Pratt), a typical wife and mother, except that she's not. She has been combatting bipolar disorder and depression for years. Coping with the illness strains family relations as husband, Dan (Will Erat), tries to keep the family striving for "normal," neglected daughter Natalie (Elissa DeMaria) turns to drugs for escape and son Gabe (Logan Hart) encourages his mother to go off the meds that keep her from feeling alive.

Diana tries different doctors (all played by Tommy Foster) and different treatments to combat the illness, but without being able to confront its root cause, she can't find her way out of the spiral.

After shock therapy, Diana can't remember her family or details from their past that might help her heal and Dan isn't much help as his own memories of how things were are selective and embellished. Meanwhile, Natalie, scared that she'll end up like her mother, tries to push away a chance at happiness with boyfriend Henry (Jacob Heimer).

Director Kevin Connors has assembled one of MTC's  most talented vocal ensembles for this rock score (musically directed by David Wolfson who conducts a four-man band on the stage). Pratt is chilling as the woman trying so hard to please everyone, but who can't find the secret to her own happiness. She masterfully channels the desperation through body language -- she smiles, but her arms are dead weight as she completes a task; all color drains out of her face as the reality of her thoughts takes over.

Her rendition of "I Miss the Mountains" is heartbreaking. I found myself holding my breath as she threw the last of her meds in the trash -- and I've seen this musical more than once. It's compelling, moving, excellent theater and Pratt is a treat to watch. In addition, perhaps because of the more intimate setting and a fine performance by Erat, Dan's character seems to have more depth. All of the actors deserve kudos, both for acting and vocal performances. It's a solid presentation of a difficult work.

Some complaints: Connors goes for a less graphic presentation, sparing us the bloody scene at the end of act one where Diana slashes her wrists. As a result, we don't understand why she feels compelled to attempt suicide -- in fact a number of people in the audience were not aware that she had done so -- and Dan's moving song "A Light in the Dark" loses depth when he doesn't sing it while cleaning up the blood. There were a couple of technical glitches and any action that takes place with actors sitting on the stage is lost to many because of sight lines in the theater.

Don't let those things, or the "downer" subject matter get in the way of enjoying this performance, however, especially if you haven't seen this musical before. It's a breakthrough piece of theater.

Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. MTC is located at 246 Post Road East, Westport.

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