First Seattle staging of Next to Normal Sizzles
Also see David's review of War Horse
Next to Normal focuses on the comfortably middle-class Goodman family, and the effects mom Diana Goodman's ever-worsening bi-polar disorder has on her nurturing husband Dan and teenage children, golden-child Gabe and alienated over-achiever Natalie. After 16 years, Diana's meds are not helping, and ECT (Electro convulsive therapy) is suggested by one of her doctors. The therapy wipes out Diana's memories, which leads her on a journey of self-discovery and opens the door for the family to heal. This terse synopsis is offered to keep those unfamiliar with the show from having a key surprise element spoiled. I know when I saw the show in a very early workshop years ago, the surprise was a key factor in my appreciation of the piece. Much of the show is sung, and the soaring Yorkey/Kitt score, which received a well-earned Tony Award, uses the pop-rock idiom with more theatricality than many recent works. The show demands a great deal of its cast of actor/singers, and the company at Balagan deliver the goods.
In a role light-years removed from the mainstream musicals she has headlined in the past, Beth DeVries is quite simply an astonishing, multi-layered Diana, a loving, decent woman lost in a haze of illness and failed pharmaceutical, compounding the other rigors of her life. The demanding vocals of the role are well handled by the actress, and her delivery of the show's signature song "I Miss the Mountains" is transcendent. In the far less showy role of Dan, Auston James is the quiet heart of the production, portraying a man whose pain may run even deeper than his wife's, despite his forced, upbeat fašade. Kody Bringman adds another strong performance to an impressive recent body of work as the charismatic Gabe, and tears into such numbers as "I'm Alive" with impressive dynamics. Keaton Whittaker, the youngest actress I have seen take on the challenging role of Natalie, is a natural for it, showing us the pain behind Natalie's forced indifference, and showing off her vocal prowess on her key number "Superboy and the Invisible Girl." Ryan Hotes is likable and sympathetic as Henry, Natalie's loyal suitor, and Ryan McCabe is impressive in the roles of Diana's two doctors.
The plague of almost every musical I see is the sound balance between the singers and the band at opening night performances, and Sound Consultant Kevin Heard was still fine-tuning, which resulted in a number of Yorkey's lyrics being lost or muddled. This took nothing away from the fine work of Musical Director R.J. Tancioco and his skilled musicians. The clean, spare scenic design by Robert J. Aguilar and Pete Rush provide just the right backdrop for a show where an excess of scenic embellishment would detract from the material, while Aguilar's lighting design and Rush's costume design are also right in sync with the overall visual sense of the show.
With Next to Normal, Balagan Theatre has produced three top-flight musicals within just a few months, and must be considered the fast-rising and most prolific young theatre company in town.
Next to Normal produced by Balagan Theatre and Contemporary Classics runs through March 2, 2013, at the Erickson Theatre. For tickets or information contact the Balagan box office at 206-329-1050 and online at www.balagantheatre.org.