Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, is receiving a powerful and emotionally compelling production at the Westport Country Playhouse through April 24.
The subject matter, atypical for a musical, revolves around Diana Goodman, a woman suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder brought on by the death of her infant son years earlier. Trying to help her cope and seek medical and therapeutic treatment is her understanding, yet somewhat aloof husband Dan. Their 16 year-old overachieving daughter, Natalie, wrestles with her own personal issues, which includes a new relationship with a stoner, yet compassionate classmate (Henry), while trying to comprehend her mother’s illness. Shadowing the interplay between the characters is the spectral presence of the now teenage, deceased son, Gabe, only seen by Diana. Trying to help the family is a pragmatic and direct therapist, Dr. Madden.
The book by Brian Yorkey doesn’t pull any punches or sugar coat the family’s tension and dysfunction. There are no easy answers or solutions to Diana’s condition. Progress is made and setbacks occur. The characters are well-drawn, full of life, but constantly buffeted by the swirling chaos of their lives. We come to care for the characters and hope they succeed in overcoming their individual struggles.
The mostly rock score by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt contains over 36 songs, sung forcefully and with conviction by the cast. The numbers amplify the outward feelings of the characters as well as delve into their inner thoughts and frame of mind.
The cast is led by Dar.Lee.See.Ah as Diana. She gives a gripping performance of a woman in a perpetual state of flux, trying to understand her circumstances and free herself of her pain and suffering. Wilson Jermaine Heredia’s Dan is a mix of emotions. The actor poignantly portrays a husband desperately trying to assert control and harmony into a disquieting household. As Natalie, Ashley LaLonde effectively balances the anger and love of a daughter torn in many directions. The most glowing performance is by Daniel J. Maldonado as the imaginary son Gabe. He brings an intensity and plaintiveness to the role. He can be menacing, but also playful as he fights for his memory to stay alive. Gian Perez provides some stability to the other characters as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry. Katie Thompson is suitably practical and exacting as Diana’s therapist.
Director/Choreographer Marcos Santana adeptly starts the show off tentatively, slowly while skillfully building the family strain and adversity to a heightened level. He teases out the struggles experienced by each character at a satisfying pace. This is especially true with the character of Gabe, as he adroitly manages to instill a degree of danger and pathos into the role.
The first level of Scenic Designer Adam Koch’s multi-level set encompasses the heart of the Goodman living area, with the upper level somewhat obscured in its configuration. Cory Pattak’s lighting design, at its best, mimics the feelings of each character.
Music Director Emily Croome leads a spirited band that is almost constantly playing through the rock infused score, which also includes a handful of heartrending ballads. Sometimes Domonic Sack’s sound design overwhelms the performers, but for most of the show the balance is first-rate.
Next to Normal, a thoughtful and captivating musical, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through April 24.