Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
With this exquisite production of Next to Normal, Theater Latté Da offers one of the crown jewels of the winding down 2022-2023 theater season. Director Peter Rothstein has an exacting eye for every small telling detail and each slight bend in the show's fabric that intensifies its bracing reality while lifting up its soaring humanity in Brian Yorkey's crushing book. The Tony Award winning rock score (music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Yorkey) is beautifully performed by a finely tuned band of five musicians led by reliably swell music conductor Jason Hansen.
Next to Normal tears down the walls of the Goodman family's home to reveal the raw truth swamping over the family: spouses Diana and Dan, fifteen-year-old Natalie and eighteen-year-old Gabriel ("Just Another Day"). For years, Diana has been battling the demons of bipolar disorder with an onslaught of medications that have yet to bring her peace–if, peace is even what she wants ("I Miss the Mountains"). Dans insistence that he understands what she is going through infuriates her and only isolates her further ("You Dont Know").
Dan is kind, patient, observant and generous. He is also exhausted, scared and frustrated by Diana's inability to realize that he is on her side ("I Am the One"). Natalie is an overachieving high school student, mortified by her mother's bizarre behavior and resentful that her brother gets all the attention while she skulks in the shadows ("Superboy and the Invisible Girl"). Gabe is a hulking presence, demanding something Diana is powerless to deliver. He is a force of high-voltage energy ("I'm Alive") who shatters her ability to live within the bounds or norms of a simple family life.
Adjacent to the family is Natalie's friend Henry, an awkward stoner who, in spite of the many ways she is screwed up by her family, thinks she is awesome and hopes she will think the same of him ("Perfect for You"). Then there are the two doctors. First is the ironically named Dr. Fine, a psychiatrist forever recalibrating the combination of Diana's meds to find a recipe that will achieve what will pass for success. Next is Dr. Madden, a psychotherapist who manages to draw out Diana's painful memories in hopes of helping her create new ways of coping with them ("Make Up Your Mind"). The practice of having one actor playing both parts underscores the idea that they are one team, Diana's illness being the opposing team–with Diana the football kicked back and forth.
The songs cited above are only eight of the twenty-nine separate songs in Kitt and Yorkey's terrific score, not to mention seven reprises and an opening prelude. I mention some of them only to point out how specifically each song reveals characters and tells their intertwined stories, while maintaining a sense of being distinctive songs with striking melodies, not wispy musical themes. Peter Morrow's sound design enables us to hear every vital word with clarity along with contributing, along with the lighting, to the effects of nightmarish therapies Diana endures.
The show looks as great as it sounds, with Paul Whitaker's set design creating the frame of a house in the slenderest of lines that convey the fragility of this structure, though those same lines blaze with lights (also Whitaker's work) that signify the intensity of emotions. Matthew J. LeFebvre's svelte costumes for Diana emphasize her moods in bright primary colors, turning to greys and blacks when her moods subside–and, like everything else in this highly polished production, LeFebvre gives close attention to details, like the snazzy checkered sneakers Henry wears to the school dance.
Next to Normal has no singing and dancing ensemble, so it is up to the six actors to fully populate the stage, and, wow, do they ever. Erin Capello is dynamite as Diana, expressing herself with ruthless candor, whether she feels elated or suicidal, and physically capturing the impulsivity that accompanies her illness. Capello sings the part beautifully, soaring in the climactic "So Anyway." Matt Riehle is wonderful as Dan, conveying genuine affection for his wife while revealing the toll his steadfastness has taken on his happiness, as he walks a tightrope between love and obligation. Riehle has a warmly affecting voice that expresses both his pain and his hopes through music.
Audrey Mojica blossoms as the angst-driven teenager, Natalie–expressing all the confusion, mortification, and optimism endemic to her age slathered under a heavy layer of dysfunction and bringing the voice of a young rock star to her songs. In other productions of Next to Normal I have seen, Gabe is a slender, angle-faced tenor. Kyle Weiler makes him a large presence who towers over the others, and through his voice and movements creates a Gabe as indestructible as Diana's visions of him. Sayer Keeley is great as Henry, sweet, dweeby, and brave in accepting the hard work it takes to be "perfect" for another person. Riley McNutt is excellent as the two doctors, bringing a different style to each and adding his superb voice to production.
I venture to guess that most of us can find something in the dysfunction suffered by the Goodman family that strikes a familiar chord, and its smartly constructed book and sympathetic characters would move all but the hardest heart toward empathy for those suffering from the pangs of an untimely death, mental illness, or a combination of both. This cast, this production team, and this brilliant musical are melded together into a bountiful, beautiful experience. After scenes of anguish and fruitless therapy, the show's closing number, "Light," sends us out of the Ritz Theatre with hope for these tortured characters and those in our own lives they remind us of, as well as hope for the power of theater to lift us up, draw us into community and face the challenges of modern living.
Next to Normal is the final mainstage production of Theater Latté Da's twenty-fifth season. That milestone prompts consideration of the many wonderful musical theater productions staged under Theater Latté Da's banner since its founding by Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek. It is even more notable because Peter Rothstein leaves as founding artistic director at this season's end to head up Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. Over his tenure, Rothstein directed an astonishing 82 mainstage productions at Latté Da (thirteen of them world premieres), while also directing at the Guthrie Theater, Children's Theatre Company, Minnesota Opera, Ten Thousand Things, and theaters around the country. No one could hope for a more generous parting gift from Rothstein than his stellar direction of this vibrant production of Next to Normal.
Next to Normal runs through July 16, 2023, at Theater Latté DA, Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $35 - $72. Student and educator rush tickets, $15, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID, cash only. 20% discount for military personnel and veterans (up to four tickets). Members of Actor's Equity Association (AEA), the Union of Professional Actors; the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC); and the Twin Cities Musicians Union - $20 with union member ID card, two tickets per member. Tickets for zip code 55413 neighborhood residents are available for $13 at the box office during regular business hours, cash only. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Book & Lyrics: Brian Yorkey; Music: Tom Kitt; Director: Peter Rothstein; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Choreography: Kyle Weiler; Scenic and Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Costume Design: Matthew J. LeFebvre; Wigs, Hair and Makeup Design: Emma Gustafson; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Production Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Manager: Kyla Finn; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Erin Capello (Diana), Sayer Keeley (Henry), Riley McNutt (Doctor), Audrey Mojica (Natalie), Matt Riehle (Dan), Kyle Weiler (Gabe).