Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Next to Normal
TheaterWorks
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's review of My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra and Fred's review of Smart People


Christiane Noll and David Harris
Photo by Lanny Nagler
Next to Normal, at TheaterWorks in Hartford through May 7th, is, at once, soulful and stirring, Rob Ruggiero's production is somehow exhilarating, even if the subject matter is difficult, emotional and perplexing. A small cast musical featuring six actors who create vivacious characters, the show also benefits from top notch live musical accompaniment. In all, it is difficult to imagine a presentation of the play which outshines this one.

Tom Kitt wrote the music and Brian Yorkey book and lyrics for Next to Normal, which, several years back, was a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner. Adam Souza's musical direction is absolutely exemplary. The primary focus for the drama centers upon Diana (resplendent, touching Christiane Noll), who is beset with bipolar disorder, a malady which is undeniably excruciating for her—and for those around her. It seems all too familiar. Ruggiero brings an immensely talented cast and production team. In their hands, the painful situation is tinged with beauty.

The Goodmans are a contemporary suburban family. Diana wants the best for her children but she hasn't full control over herself. For example, she puts together many, many sandwiches while sitting on the floor. Her loyal husband Dan (Davis Harris) takes her, first, to Dr. Fine (J.D. Daw); meanwhile, the entire process depresses Dan as well. Their son Gabe (John Cardoza) oftentimes appears and sings to and/or with his mother or father. Natalie (Maya Keleher) is a piano-playing teenager (professing allegiance to Mozart) who meets and then becomes involved with expressive Henry (Nick Sacks).

Treatment does not work for Diana. There's a shift to Dr. Madden (Daw, once again). Diana has tired of endless pills, flushes them down the toilet. The new doc recommends ECT, a shock therapy as he feels, after Diana slashes her wrists, that there must be a radically different approach. Diana, given her medical predicament, insists that Gabe is present. This is a woman, however, who suffers delusions.

Ruggiero and scenic designer Wilson Chin utilize a gently, effectively rotating stage. The background for the action includes many floor-to-ceiling bookcases. A variety of lamps are on the shelves. When a set piece, such as the dining table, needs to be moved, the actors do so. In all, the set is a perfect complement as it proactively influences the shifting tones of the production.

Kitt and Yorkey, musical collaborators, provide songs which are acute, specific, uplifting, plaintive. "Just Another Day," sung early by the members of the Goodman family, gets it all moving. Christiana Noll has a clear, distinctive voice and she excels throughout. She has a number of solos, including "I Miss the Mountains," "You Don't Know," and "So Anyway." Maya Keleher, playing Natalie, excels with "Everything Else," and in collaboration with Henry (Nick Sacks) time and again. John Cardoza's Gabe sings "I'm Alive" by himself and many tunes with others; toward the final curtain, he is excellent with David Harris on "I Am the One." Harris sings often, with wide range. In all, the men must be able to sing in upper octaves (as tenors). It is a demanding score and this group is prodigious with interpretation and performance.

Next to Normal is heartbreakingly real and never easy. Director Ruggiero's wise decisions and his ability to coax his actors to feel for and with the characters reflect his understanding of this script—and of his theater. TheaterWorks is a cozy place and everyone in its audience is close to the actors. Next to Normal is pervasive, unsettling yet warm. It all adds up to extraordinary theater.

Next to Normal continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Connecticut, through May 7th, 2017. For tickets, call (860) 527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org. .


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