Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Next to Normal
Westport Country Playhouse
Review by Fred Sokol

Also see Fred's review of Choir Boy


Dar. Lee. See. Ah. and Wilson Jermaine Heredia
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Next to Normal received both Tony and Pulitzer Prize awards in 2009 and 2010. And now, Marcos Santana is director and choreographer for a new production at Westport Country Playhouse, which runs through April 24. It reimagines the work and is a tremendous, resounding rock and roll musical–amplified and quite sensational.

Tom Kitt wrote the music and Brian Yorkey both book and lyrics for Next to Normal, which centers upon mental illness and its implications in a contemporary family. Santana, in his notes for the production, explains: "I knew that casting Latine and Black actors in these roles would deepen the circumstances of this story and enhance the impact that it has over its audience."

Diana (Dar. Lee. See. Ah.) was diagnosed as bipolar 16 years in the past. Dr. Madden (Katie Thompson) has tried, with little success, to medicate her. Diana's daughter Natalie (Ashley LaLonde) is smart and musically talented. She's in a relationship with a young man named Henry (Gian Perez) and there's a decision to introduce him to Natalie's family. Diana, however, to understate, is a confused human being, and the presence of her son Gabe (Daniel J. Maldonado) exacerbates everything. Diana's illusions expand and confound until her husband Dan (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) leads his wife to Dr. Fine (Thompson plays a second psychiatrist here), Dr. Fine recommends electroconvulsive therapy.

The musical team supplies a multitude of revealing compositions which fill in the narrative. The family members get it all moving with "Just Another Day." Midway through the first act, Ashley LaLonde and Gian Perez combine sweet voices with "Perfect for You." Later, Dar. Lee. See. Ah. is moving with "I Miss the Mountains." Midway through the first portion of the performance, it is Maldonado who demonstrates that Gabe wields power over his mother with "I'm Alive." Kitt and Yorkey's collaboration over numerous informative songs fuel nearly two and one half hours of smashing musical theater. After intermission, we find the Natalie turned to drugs while her mother has been undergoing ECT. Reprises of "I'm Alive," "Perfect for You," and "I Am The One" plus other significant tunes lead to a rousing and upbeat group finale entitled "Light." It is supremely vivacious.

For much of the time, six musicians led by Emily Croome play vigorously, rocking hard. The tender moments are fittingly softer. Croome and the band are prodigious and benefit from Domonic Sack's sound design. Cory Pattak's lighting switches hues and sometimes glares forward. Santana, through scenic designer Adam Koch's craft and creativity, opens up the Westport stage on two levels. The interior of the home is wide open and the entirety of Santana's vision is spacious and sweeping. All of the production elements coalesce so that passion and heartfelt feeling completely charge this Next to Normal.

As Diana, Dar. Lee. See. Ah. showcases a large, irresistible voice. Last summer, she starred in Nina Simone: Four Women at Berkshire Theatre Group. The actress was last on Broadway in Once on This Island. Wilson Jermaine Heredia is perhaps best known for his stunning performance as Angel when Rent premiered in New York 26 years ago. Just a few summers later, he appeared in Quark Victory at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Now, he demonstrates deft performance chops as Dan in the WCP production. Over the past year, Heredia appeared in the superb film, Tick, Tick ... Boom. Dan, is, compared to everyone else in the nuclear family, stable, a middle-aged and calming presence. Heredia snagged the Tony when he played a magnetic cross dresser in Rent and he is now a disciplined voice of reason on the Westport stage. The truth is that each performer in this cast is exemplary.

Bipolar existence is known to devastate not only the individual afflicted but those close to him or her. Next to Normal, through stirring, galvanic music, flies to the center of struggle. This production addresses, through its penetrating songs, the extremes of the illness. The rendering is illuminating and convincing from start to finish. Try hard to catch this one.

Next to Normal runs through April 24, 2022, at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Ct., Westport CT. For tickets and information, call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org.


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