Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
Next to Normal
It's a show that centers on the subjects of grief, prescription and illegal drug use, misguided psychiatry ethics, suicide and family survival in a suburban climate. It's also a musical. Sounds like fun? It is if it is done right and, fortunately, Porthouse Theatre nails it. Next to Normal is the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt that dares to bare the underbelly of psychological breakdown and the effects it has on families as it unfolds over the years.
Diana (Amy Fritsche) is your typical suburban housewife who lives in a well-appointed house with her husband Dan (Thom Christopher Warren), son Gabe (Madison Adams Hagler), and daughter Natalie (Madelaine Vandenberg). Diana is normal in every respect except for one. Her state of mind manifests itself in a variety of forms of abnormal behavior, such as insomnia and public meltdowns. When her family finds her making sandwiches that cover most of the kitchen floor, a trip to her doctor is necessary.
Her psychiatrist Dr. Madden (Jim Bray) treats Diana with a smorgasbord of anti-psychotic medications to correct her "chemical imbalance." The side effects have her admitting that she can't feel anything, to which the doctor declares that she is "stable." This feeling of detachment eventually forces Diana to toss all of the pills into the toilet, with Gabe's blessing.
In the meantime, daughter Natalie is an over-achiever who excels in everything at school (including music) but fails in everything at home, which makes her feel invisible in the shadow of her "super boy" brother. At school she meets Henry (Andy Donnelly), a well-meaning and gentle pot head who attempts to introduce Natalie to the concept of friendship and, later, love.
Drug-free Diana begins seeing Dr. Fine (also played by Jim Bray), who suggests hypnosis, but the results are not what the doctor anticipates. In a near last ditch effort, a series of ECTs (electroconvulsive therapy, or shock treatments) are ordered.
With no supervision at home due to Diana's hospitalization, Natalie begins taking a mixture of her mother's remaining collection of drugs while hitting the local club scene as Henry rescues her time and time again. Henry invites Natalie to the spring formal dance but she refuses due to her lack of self esteem. Following ECT treatments Diana returns home not knowing who she is, where she is, and who her family is.
The show features more than 35 musical numbers and reprises that tell the story in a nearly rock opera format. All of the actors are in fine voice as not only an ensemble but in their duets and solo works as well. Amy Fritsche anchors the show as Diana, giving an extremely convincing performance of an innocent who has fallen down the rabbit hole of experimental treatments. Thom Christopher Warren as Dan is the perfect helpmate who struggles with alcoholism as he drinks to cope with her symptoms.
Madelaine Vandenberg is perfectly cast as Natalie, whose greatest fear is ending up like her mother and is beginning to show some of the symptoms in her imitating behavior. Madison Adams Hagler is great as Gabe, playing the role with sinister intent, adding to the creepiness factor. Andy Donnelly is wonderful as Henry, is the pot smoking wastrel looking for a reason to fill his time. Jim Bray does double duty as the pill-dispensing Dr. Madden and the holistic-minded Dr. Fine.
This production is expertly directed by Jim Weaver, who keeps the action and music flowing in what would otherwise be a long sit. The set design by Patrick Ulrich is simple yet functional with a roll-out dining table and chairs, a set of contemporary chairs, and a two-tier stair setup that doubles as Natalie's performance space. The lighting design by T. C. Kouyeas, Jr. serves its purpose of setting the various moods, and Tyler Forbes' sound design is crystal clear.
Looking at a scant description of the show might make some think twice about attending, but that would be a mistake. The music (with a superb six-piece orchestra) and the excellent cast make this must-see theater. Kudos go to Porthouse for the courage to stage this extraordinary musical that addresses the subject of modern mental health and its various treatments and mistreatments.
Porthouse Theatre's Next to Normal, through July 21, 2018, on the grounds of Blossom Music Center, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls OH. You may purchase tickets online at www.kent.edu/porthouse or by phone at 330-6723884.