Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Next to Normal
Also see Jeffrey's review of Jersey Boys
Set in the suburbs, Next to Normal centers on mom Diana (Sabrina Lynn Gore), who has been suffering from bi-polar disorder and psychosis for the past 16 years, her attentive, faithful and over-compensating husband Dan (Johnbarry Green), her perfectionist, neurotic and attention-starved daughter Natalie (Camryn Handler), and her passionate and charming son Gabe (Christopher Alvarez). Upon first glance, everything and everyone looks fine. Set and costume designer and director Daimien J. Matherson paints a portrait of a typical family living a typical life. Matherson uses every inch of the small, intimate stage for a kitchen and living room that speaks volumes about what the Goodman family is about. The clothes strewn on the floor and the family pictures displayed on the shelves in the living room indicate a home that is full, full of love, lived in, used and a little messy. The paper towel holder and hook on the kitchen wall are standard for many kitchens and smartly distinguish a kitchen from a dining room. The cast are also adorned in casual and comfortable clothing that are only remarkable in the sense that they are expected; nothing extraordinary stands out.
However, as the musical progresses to reveal the dysfunction that starts with Diana making sandwiches on the kitchen floor, suddenly the staging looks different and more poignant. While Matherson skillfully directs the cast to use the space in front of the narrow stage in addition to the stage, the challenge of performing on the slim platform appears all the more daunting as the audience peers into the psychological tightrope that each character walks. What once looked like a skyline with colorful mountains (designed by Nicole Navarro) transforms into the highs and lows of manic depression. What just a few minutes into the show looked like a regular household turns into a backdrop of mental unrest for all involved.
Dan takes Diana to Dr. Madden (Ernesto K. Gonzalez) during Diana's exhilarating hallucinations, for therapy. Dr. Madden starts out with prescribing medications, but his plan for Diana evolves when her response to the drugs is not as positive as everyone hoped. Choreographer Kelly Johnson does a great job of drawing the audience into Diana's mental troubles with the use of a simple prop; pushing Diana to and fro on a swivel chair, the cast's choreographed movements are polished even while Diana's brain isn't.
While mom unravels, straightens up and unravels again, Natalie, a budding classical pianist, connects with Henry (Charlie Alguera), a fellow musician who is just as awkward and unsure of himself as she is of herself. Blown off at first, Henry is determined to win Natalie's heart and demonstrates similar qualities to Natalie's dad. Clad in a Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt and expressing his distaste for President Trump, Henry is defiant in many ways but not in love. In his love for Natalie, he is consistent, patient and unwavering, qualities that make both Henry and Dan very likable, although alternatively you could think of them as foolish and weak.
Seemingly unplugged from everyone but Diana, Gabe is a mysterious presence. While people swirl around him, only Diana tugs at his heart. He vies solely for her affections, is at odds with his dad, and has a sibling rivalry with Natalie, but despite the gravitas of the musical's theme and the strength of Alvarez' singing, he is never as grounded as everyone else. He is, however, always in the midst of the family's chaos.
Compelling from beginning to end, Next to Normal is 2-1/2 hours (with a 15-minute intermission) of a wild rollercoaster filled with gripping moments, good music, and enchanting numbers. Since it's debut in 2008, the show has won many awards, including three Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Although the show contains strong language and themes that are not recommended for kids, Tom Kitt's music and Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics are exceptional. The cast and crew of this rendition all work hard to pull off an ambitious show in a tiny theatre.
Although each cast member is stellar, the lion's share of the praise goes to Sabrina Lynn Gore, not only because she has the meatiest role that requires the most range but because of all she pours into it. With her performance, she makes us laugh, cry, gulp and think, and she commands the stage every time she walks upon it. Johnbarry Green is wonderful as a supportive husband who is long suffering, but also longstanding. His tenderness during "He's Not Here" is memorable and touching. Gore and Green's execution of "You Don't Know" is fantastic. By and large, the cast work very well together as a dream team. Though Camryn Handler plays a character that is part-mousy, part-unloved, and wholly under-confident, she is endearing, relatable and fun to watch.
Other highlights include Sierra Shreves' and Clifford Spulock's lighting design and direction. For working with such a modest stage, scenes are beautifully and distinctively lit to highlight each actor and moment. The strobe lighting is the right punctuation in some scenes, reflecting the mindset of the characters involved. The live band are also a nice touch. Carefully hidden in the back of the house, their presence is exciting and authentic even if the decibel level may be a little high for the patrons sitting in the last rows.
Now with only two musicals under their belt, Infinite Abyss impresses as they continue their eight-year, 26-show run with a winner. I look forward to and hope for their bright future.
Next to Normal, through June 3rd, 2018, at The Abyss Theatre, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors FL. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. For tickets and information please visit www.infinite-abyss.org or www.measureformeasuretheatre.com.