Next to Normal: Powerful vocals highlight an uneven production

February 9, 2018

 

Next to Normal, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, is a unique rock musical that centers around Diana Goodman, a woman dealing with bipolar disorder, and her family. It premiered on Broadway in 2009 and went on to be nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning three, and alson won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is an almost entirely sung rock musical that has the audience laughing one moment and crying the very next, as evidenced by Passion Theatre Group’s production, playing at Bullock Creek High School this weekend.

 

This musical is an ambitious one for any theatre company to produce, primarily because of the casting involved, and directors Aidan Montgomery and Kady Booth had actors with strong vocal abilities. Particular standouts were Richelle Arguello as Goodman family daughter, Natalie, and Sam Nowak as her stoner boyfriend Henry. Both had the vocal chops to tackle this difficult score as well as a chemistry that you never wanted to take your eyes off of when they were together.

 

Alexandria McMath and Aaron Mealey, as Diana and her husband Dan, had the difficult task of portraying a married couple dealing with mental illness and grief, when both actors are in their late teens or early twenties. Both were very strong vocally, but the emotional intensity of their relationship took a little bit of time to build throughout the first act. We eventually saw some great emotionally intense moments near the end of act two, but with no build up, it was seemed to come out of nowhere. This emotional disconnect was also apparent between McMath and Aidan Montgomery as son Gabe, improving itself immensely at the end of the first act and during act two as well.

 

Kudos as well to Alena Ramos, playing a pair of Diana’s many doctors, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden. The role is usually played by a man, and I’m not entirely sure it worked being played by a woman, but Ramos was able to overcome those odds and deliver a balanced performance, handling both the humorous moments at the beginning of her time onstage as well the more serious moments later in the show.

 

A show like this can very easily being bogged by the emotional moments, but each cast member was able to find the funny moments within the script and use them to keep the audience laughing in the midst of some of the sadder events of the story.

 

As mentioned above, particular props should be given to vocal director Kelley Gray for keeping the difficult music under control for this cast. Some of the vocals did become weaker as the show progressed, but the effort put in by the cast and production team was apparent. Some of the music, led by band director Charles Bicigo, was a little too slow and transitions between songs could occasionally sound muddled, but the music in this show is a massive undertaking, and I applaud them for their work.

 

Directors Montgomery and Booth did well with creating interesting stage pictures with such a small cast, but kept the cast stationary throughout most of the songs or frozen when the focus wasn’t on them. The frenzied story and music never stops moving, which seemed at odds with the sparse blocking during some of the songs. With actors sometimes just standing singing at each other, some of those moments became rather stagnant.

 

Musicals, rock musicals especially, are usually done on a simple set with more attention paid to the lighting and the sound design since the locations of the story tend to move rather quickly. This show was no different with simple stairs on either side of the stage with ramps leading up to a platform center stage toward the back. Their were a few issues being able to see actors on the center platform if there were other actors standing on the stage in front of them, but the set, designed by Jason Tisdale, worked well within the action of the story. The lighting design, also by Tisdale, wasn’t as extravagant as something you would expect from a show with such a simple set, but functioned well with the story moving so quickly from location to location. Compliments also to costume design Gina Kearly for transforming the cast into a typical American family, while using a few color schemes across everyone’s costumes to allow for unexpected unity, most notably at the end with everyone wearing shades of purple, or division, each of the doctors initially wearing colors that clashed with Diana, as we experienced the story.

 

A rock musical is a difficult and unique experience for any theatre company, and despite some of the challenges, this production of Next to Normal is absolutely worth seeing for the immense vocal talent presented onstage. It is a story that is just as relevant now as it was nearly ten years ago when it premiered, and I appreciate anyone who works as hard as this team did to keep that story alive.

 

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+.

 

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