Passion Theatre's second take on a small-scale musical is 2008's Pulitzer Prize winner "Next To Normal," an ambitious move that somewhat pays off. The plot is structured around a year or so in the life of Diana Goodman (Alexandria McMath) living with her "boring" husband Dan (Aaron Mealey), "genius" daughter Natalie (Richelle Arguello), and "little shit" son Gabe (Aidan Montgomery) as she also deals with her ever worsening bipolar disorder. As Diana journeys through various remedies, Dan tries to be supportive, Gabe works his own agenda, and Natalie gets lost in the shuffle. Rounding out the cast are Natalie's well meaning stoner boyfriend Henry (Sam Nowak) and Diana's doctors (nicely doubled by Alena Ramos). While there is plenty of darkness and trouble here, the show ends with a hopeful ray of light (and not a dry eye in the house if opening night is to be any indication).
"Next to Normal" is truly a modern piece of classic literature, both in plot and in emotional, complex, and demanding songs that run the range of folk to rock. Almost entirely sung through, it is a show that starred such theatrical heavy hitters as Aaron Tveit, Brian D'Arcy James, and Alice Ripley. It is a very ambitious choice for a fledgeling theatre group with light resources: a simple set with whip-quick changes, lots of costumes, a tight rock band, and small ensemble cast; which means there is little room to hide weak links.
Aaron Mealey is an obvious standout for his crystal clear diction, powerful singing voice that never falters, and his complex portrayal of Dan Goodman as a man caught up in trying to do the right thing but letting everything fall through the cracks in the process. Especially lovely is his Act 1 ender "A Light in the Dark," where the song is sensitively sung and beautifully acted, but every moment he is onstage he is in character and truly impressive. The most wonderful scenes are in his interactions with stage wife Alexandria McMath. You would never guess this young woman is a high school senior--she brings so many complex emotions to her character, running the full gamut from humorous, disoriented, grieving, angry, and, most importantly, "crazy" in a sensitive and thoroughly believable way. She and Mealey interacting for "So Anyway" and "I Am the One" will bring you to tears (quieter moments had me surrounded by sniffles, and I don't think it was cold and flu season.) McMath has a lovely alto voice that is well suited to some of Diana's solos, especially the more folk-tinged "I Miss the Mountains" and "I Dreamed a Dance."
Richelle Arguello's Natalie Goodman feels a little one note as an angry, angsty teen - you never really get to see her interacting with anyone in a positive or playful way until the very end of the show, which makes her a little dislikable and can cause her scenes to be draggy. While her voice is lovely in harmonies, she struggles to reach the very demanding rock belt that the role calls for in solos. Seeing Natalie be flirtatious with her boyfriend or comfort her father, and taking the lead in the final number "Light" are the moments where she shines. Aidan Montgomery also struggles with some of the rock riffing required of Gabe Goodman - while his notes are all there they are tentative and low energy, making him really fantastic in the many duets and harmonies but lackluster in show stopping numbers like "I'm Alive." He also struggles with the physicality of his character, giving good facial involvement but forgetting the rest of his body for the intensity required of the part
Sam Nowak as Natalie's boyfriend Henry is a breath of fresh air, taking a smaller part and making it a joy to watch with his great voice, reactions, and energy. Ramos does an admirable job differentiating two of Diana's doctors - some of her lines as Dr. Fine get a little muddy, but her take as a female Dr. Madden is warm and relatable. Vocally she has a deceptively difficult job; she has arguably the most scored dialogue, meaning she has to say all the lines before the music is done being played, and then hit rock-style riffs with no musical lead up. This isn't always successful, but her voice sounds great and she carries on well.
The music sounded great! The band, led by Charles Bicigo, was tight and there were no noticeable issues. Vocals by Kelley Gray were good, and any syncing issues between the band and vocalists will hopefully be fixed as the show goes on. Costumes by Gina Kearley were adequate, but combining modern-ish costumes with a very bland minimal set by Jason Tisdale meant there was very little to look at during the show. The house never felt real, the actors existing on a basically bare stage. Lighting design, also by Tisdale, was generally very good; cues were quick and tight, a good range of colors and depth were used, and an interesting effect was overall chosen that left the actors frequently in stark light and shadow. While I think this was a visual choice done for artistic purposes, it did leave some dead spots where faces or full actors were not in view during pivotal moments. Sound by Sean Mealey was hit and miss. There were no effects during the show, and mics sounded a bit odd and tinney - that being said, everything was audible except for a minor snafu at the end with Montgomery.
Overall direction was done by Montgomery, the founder of Passion Theatre, and Kady Booth, Midland High School senior. There are some awkward blocking moments where entrances and exits feel too obviously planned, particularly for Montgomery himself which is hard to adjust when you are pulling double duty as director and actor.
In general, Passion Theatre's "Next To Normal" was a very ambitious undertaking that had some very high points and a few low ones too. With affordable ticket prices, some top notch singing and acting from some up and coming young performers, and a beautiful, meaningful story that deserves to be seen, it's certainly worth your time to check it out.
Passion Theatre Group’s production of Next to Normal will continue onstage at Bullock Creek High School, February 9 and 10, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $18 in advance/$20 at the door.
Students (with valid ID): $12 online/$15 at the door. Adult language and content: Recommended for ages 16+.