Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed and choreographed by Michael Berresee.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"I will keep the plates all spinning."
Aaron Ramey and Heidi Blickenstaff; photo: Hubert Schriebel
The nuclear family: father, mother, daughter, son. This nuclear family: big bang! Not everything is as cut and dried as we’d like. Mother makes the promise to keep all the plates spinning, but Mama doesn’t have it in her to make that happen. Her husband is over-solicitous about her medications. Her daughter is toxic, every touch sets her off, every kind thought or word makes her ballistic and Mother and daughter do not exchange kind words ever. The son is weird; no one responds to him except his mom and she always does so loudly and sometimes vulgarly. Mom also throws food on the floor in order to make sandwiches for her brood. Something is definitely wrong here.
This is not a normal family. They are not even "next to normal." They are way down the pike. The show is about their efforts to attain something akin to normalcy, even though none of them understands what that will mean. It is a through-composed two hours and ten minutes ride on a rock orchestra through the hell of their lives. This requires a fabulous group of actors who can sing their hearts out while acting and act all the time they’re singing. At the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont, the journey is a fulfilling and satisfying one with a fine assemblage of performers, designers and director to make "Next to Normal" into one of the best evenings of musical theater this season.
First and foremost there is Heidi Blickenstaff as Diana, the mother. Her singing voice is outstanding and her dramatic and comic acting chops are unbeatable. In spite of her recent Broadway career, I haven’t seen her before this and now I don’t want to let her out of my sight. She brings so much strength and understanding to her character that it was hard to lose that odd "fly on the wall" feeling as I watched her. She made me uncomfortable and at the same time held me so tight that I almost paid no attention to her co-workers. And she sings wonderfully.
As her husband, Dan, the theater has brought in Aaron Ramey, seemingly direct from Broadway also. His tenor voice is thrilling, especially in the duets and ensemble numbers that fill this show’s score. His handsome face, complimenting her prettiness, reveals the inner man far more than we would anticipate. As an actor he holds back nothing from us. We see and feel his pain, his joys and his horrors. As a singing actor he combines the various elements that make him both attractive and interesting and what emerges is the complete man that Dan must be. We do not know enough about him, but we don’t feel the need to look any further for he satisfies like a good piece of cake would do in this sort of situation.
Mom’s having a breakdown and exhibiting all the symptoms. She throws food on the floor to make a point that not even she understands. She has suicidal thoughts and acts on them. She takes too many pills in too many combinations. Doing all of this she not the best idol for her daughter Natalie to emulate.
Natalie is played by Margo Seibert who returns to the Weston Playhouse in this well-tailored principal role. Her voice is much more centered and controlled than it was last season and she was very good then. She has learned the pleasure of the pout and the message that gesture can get across to the audience. Her final scene in this show with her mother allows her to take everything she has presented thus far and move and combine it into her first loving gesture. That she brought tears to my eyes and to those around me is proof enough that she is able to take such a well-written moment and make it her own and make it work.
Her brother, Gabe, is played by Dan DeLuca in a manic manner that is absolutely perfect for the unspecific aspects of his still-forming character. Gabe is illusory, not always clear as to his motives. DeLuca manages to make him loveable and at the same time leave us wondering what he is all about. Before the end of the first act we know who he is and why he is the way he is, but he never lets us forget that he is intensely alive and he won’t let people forget that. With the difficult dance moves given him by director Michael Berresse, no one can.
Etai BenShlomo plays Henry, a budding jazz musician high school student who courts Natalie. Henry adds a much needed look at the outside elements of this family and BenShlomo does a perfect job of doing just that. Rounding out the cast as two doctors is David Ayers who creates two very different men and gives them each their fair chance. Ayers is wonderful as Dr. Madden, whose name says it all and Dr. Fine, a feel-good guy if ever there was one. He has the spoken words in my favorite light number from this play, "My Psychopharmacologist and I."
This show is an emotional heavy-weight and each of the people involved, through their characters, contributes to the downward spiral of emotional connectivity that the audience experiences. It is all worth it, for the work done by the creative team here is sensational.
In a complete concept turn-around from the original set Timothy R. Mackabee provides a floating set of solid walls, barren and boring and basic. It provides an excellent set of varied backdrops for the development of both Natalie’s and Diana’s stories. Jennifer Caprio has provided the right costumes for each participant in the tale and Tyler Micoleau has given us places to look at and a way of seeing the show that adds a collision with reality feeling to the piece. His lighting does more than one job at a time.
Ed Chapman, as sound designer, did not - at the performance I saw - provide clarity to the vocalist/band combination, often letting the band dominate key moments in the show when the words are far more important than the mood and rhythm of the music. The five men in the orchestra pit were almost always too loud to let us hear every word being sung and in this show every word is important.
Overall, this is a superb presentation of a Tony Award winning and Pulitzer Prize winning musical play. With this director’s vision and this cast’s presentation of that vision, the show is a true masterpiece in the theater.
Etai BenShlomo and Margo Seibert; photo: Hubert Schriebel
Heidi Blickenstaff and David Ayers; photo: Hubert Schriebel
Next to Normal runs through July 27 at the Weston Playhouse on the town square in Weston, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at www.westonplayhouse.org.