Gripping NEXT TO NORMAL Brings Mental Illness to Light

N2N - Cihanek

When dealing with mental illness in this modern age of instant gratification, we struggle with the notion that there is no magic pill, no simple fix. In Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next To Normal, which opened on July 4th at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, the Goodman family navigates the rocky terrain of bipolar disorder and grief in what most would consider an unlikely topic for a musical.

The central character of the show, Diana Goodman (Juliette Garrison Koch), has long been suffering from bipolar manic-depressive episodes and swings between “manic, magic days” and “dark, depressing nights,” sometimes carrying her family with her, sometimes knocking them down in the process. Diana’s husband, Dan (Chuck Stango) and their two kids, Natalie (Sydney Coelho) and Gabe (Luke Garrison), struggle to keep in step with Diana as they seek comfort from Diana’s doctors (Keith Guinta) or Natalie’s sweet, stoner boyfriend Henry (Matt Madden).

The winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Next To Normal is under the deft direction of Michael Burnett, who has proven time and again that challenging his performers and his audience with difficult subject matter yields powerful results. The expository first act moves swiftly and sets you up perfectly for a gut-wrenching second act.

As Diana, Juliette Garrison Koch takes on a physically, vocally and emotionally demanding role with great aplomb. Easing between the quiet, tender moments to the wild, frenzied ones, the audience genuinely feels the torture of Diana having to choose between a drug-induced catatonia and a medication-free instability. Ms. Koch owns the stage during some of the bigger, belted numbers but the moments when the grief gently bubbles to the surface are her most memorable. During her anguish-filled rendition of “How Could I Ever Forget?” she grabs onto your heart and grips it relentlessly until the final curtain.

Sydney Coelho’s portrayal of Diana’s troubled teenage daughter Natalie is at once explosive and poignant. Her powerful vocals shine in the character’s signature song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” while the gentler moments when she acknowledges her fear of becoming like her mother are heartbreaking and unforgettable.

Luke Garrison, as Gabe, drifts in and out of the shadows with confidence, inserting himself into the action with a menacing rock-star quality as he constantly tugs at the very fiber holding the family together. Garrison’s strong voice and youthful presence during his solo “I’m Alive” perfectly exemplify this charismatic character.

Chuck Stango brings great heart to the role of Dan, Diana’s faithful and determined husband, desperate to fix what is broken. Newcomer Keith Guinta delivers a crisp take on Drs. Fine & Madden, with effortlessly clear vocals. Matt Madden is charming as the patient and quirky Henry.

Music director Nsangi Kariamu expertly leads a five piece orchestra and vocal director Diane Lapine guided the cast through Kitt’s complex score. Kariamu is able to musically direct the cast through the production from a location upstage, a position that can be challenging for both performers and orchestra alike. The orchestra is buoyant, finding moments where the musical shifts evoke more emotional response than some of the spoken scenes, a sign of a well-crafted score meeting flawless execution.

Laura Baxter’s set design, with its similar-yet-assymetrical “N” shaped windows and floating white platforms against a black void, perfectly represents the imbalance of the Goodman household. Justin Morgan’s lighting design lends to the rock concert feel of Diana’s internal monologue and gradually and subtly becomes devoid of color as her mind is emptied of troubling memories. Wendy Yung’s sound design was a little uneven at the beginning of the show, making it difficult to hear certain lyrics, but seemed to resolve itself throughout the course of the evening. From the manic reds to the post-ECT greys and blues, Meg Jones’ costume design is well thought out and aptly reflects Diana’s mental state throughout the show.

In a time when commodity and jukebox musicals pervade the landscape of the modern musical, it is important that original pieces that break the mold are given life in an accessible and affordable setting. Next To Normal is a significant musical for our generation and it is beautifully and lovingly staged at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts.


 

Next To Normal runs at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, 184 Whisconier Road, Brookfield. Friday, July 4-Saturday, July 26, 8 p.m. $20-$15. 203-775-0023, tbta@brookfieldtheatre.org.

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