Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review of "Next to Normal"

The best musical in Connecticut right now is playing at Theaterworks.  Next to Normal, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning show, is receiving a spirited and impassioned production at their downtown Hartford venue.  The show centers on a mother with a bi-polar disorder triggered by the death of an infant son and how her family struggles with this paralyzing condition.

The portrayal of a household at the precipice and how each member copes with their inner tensions, angst, and personal crises is riveting theater. Brian Yorkey’s libretto draws you into their individual despair, their setbacks, and small victories. It is a musical where the audience is connected to the energy and emotionally involved with the characters portrayed on stage.

The raw energy and urgency of the rock-infused score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey amplifies the edginess and distress on stage. The music and lyrics convey the hurt, desperation, and even hope by the characters. The songs are powered by a tight, six-piece band under the first-rate musical supervision of Adam Souza.

Each member of the six-person company brings a strong intelligence and sensitivity to their role.  Their individual singing voices steadily handle the varied score, whether powerful rockers or tender ballads.  Leading the cast is Broadway and musical theater veteran Christiane Noll.  Her performance as Diana, the troubled mother at the center of the story, is heartfelt and shattering. David Harris, who seems to have found a home within the Connecticut musical theater community the past few years (Les Miserables at CT Rep and Anything Goes at Goodspeed), does a superb job with his portrayal of Donna’s husband, Dan.  He imbues the role with an undercurrent of frustration and helplessness as he seeks to support his beleaguered wife.  John Carboza gives an anguished, mournful rendering to Gabe, the deceased son.  Maya Keleher, making her professional theater debut, comes off as a polished actress in the role of the daughter Natalie.  Nick Sacks is satisfying as Natalie’s funky boyfriend Henry and J.D. Daw delivers a solid performance playing two different psychologists,

Director Rob Ruggiero coaxes heart-wrenching performances from each actor as he slowly builds the emotional level of the show to its ultimate climax.
Working with set designer Wilson Chin and lighting designer John Lasiter, the scenes nimbly and seamlessly meld into each other without disrupting the flow of the story.  Sometimes, when all the characters are on stage, the production can appear crowded, which can be distracting to the audience, but this is a minor issue.  Overall, Ruggiero, one of the best musical theater directors in the state, has a firm and skillful handle on the show.

Wilson Chin’s set design, banks of shelving chock full of with lamps and household knick knacks, is somewhat busy.  However, it is an apt metaphor for the clutterness within Donna’s consciousness and the luminousity she is searching for within her life.  His placement of a center doorway provides an opening into her mind, which only the departed son can enter and leave.

John Lasiter’s lighting design is outstanding as it helps shape the many moods swirling around the show and also helps designate scene changes within the production.

Next to Normal, a compelling and absorbing musical drama, extended through May 7th.

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