“Normal” is probably one of the hardest things to define. In practical application, it doesn’t mean much more than whatever is considered usual or standard; but it has a deeper meaning of something more, something we all yearn for. The implication is that anything “normal” is also peaceful, comforting, desirable, fulfilling, and ultimately rewarding. This puts the two meanings into conflict; in a world where everything from Fake News to Tweets can and do cause regular uproars, and chaos is the new normal, then it’s no wonder so many people are fighting so hard to make the world a better place.
This is the underpinning to the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s production of the 2008 Off-Broadway and the 2009 Broadway musical Next to Normal, which takes an unflinching look at the world of chronic mental illness. Still often a rather taboo subject, mental illness suffers from the additional complications of being difficult to define, diagnose and treat. So, to say this musical is a complicated work is putting it mildly. But that’s also what makes it brave and rather brilliant (and this reviewer’s opinion isn’t alone, as Next to Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama).
Diane (played by Aubrey Comperatore) met Dan (Beau Clark) in college, when they were both young aspiring architects; but an unexpected pregnancy and swift marriage, followed by an even swifter tragedy, sent their dream lives into a tail spin and Diane into a nightmare of bipolar disorder. Now, nearly 20 years later, their lives are an endless roller-coaster of highs and lows, drugs and therapy; and it’s hard to tell who in this small cast of characters is suffering most.
The obvious answer is Diane, whose mental delusions and manic and depressive phases drive the music and the plotline. But the musical doesn’t hold back on the brutal side effects — and not just the chemical kind (although it discusses those too).
Natalie (Avery Zimmerman), Dan and Diane’s teenage daughter, struggles with school, grades, and the awkward first stages of romance, and then goes home to find even more chaos more often than not. Her older brother Gabe (Joshua Altman) has his own story to tell, one which gives voice to the mental disorder itself in a way that you have to see the show to appreciate. Dan has become a valiant and desperately tired husband and father, doing everything he can to hold his marriage and his family together.
NRACT made an excellent choice in selecting Next to Normal for its 2018-19 season, and it is well staged in such an intimate space. Scott Winton Wray’s set design is simple, with three sets of stairs center, left and right that are used for various purposes while giving the impression of not actually going anywhere — a fitting metaphor for many of the character’s struggles. Aaron Alderman’s inspired lighting design plays against the gauzy fabric drapes that frame the backdrop of the entire stage, bringing an ethereal, insubstantial quality that is appropriately jarring against the hard-edged staircases. It all feels a bit like an Escher drawing, and works well for the turbulent storyline.
But the real focus is on the characters, and their fears, griefs, and internal realities — and their external consequences — that draws you in from the very first song and drags you down the rabbit hole. Aubrey Comperatore plays a somewhat tentative Diane, often seeming a bit overwhelmed by her role, although her powerful vocals and vulnerability on stage make her performance compelling.
Averi Zimmerman is an absolute standout, with flawless vocals and just the right blend of intelligence, spunk, Emo, and a bit of her own madness that brings to life a Natalie that is sympathetic and relatable even as she makes the kind of youthful, rebellious mistakes all teenagers tend to. Greg Toft does a commendable job playing more than one of Diane’s many psychiatrists; his soothing vocals and gentle demeanor convey a convincing professional who really does want the best for Diane, even when his part positions him as a de facto villain often enough.
Joshua Altman’s sinuous performance delivered some of the most insightful and powerful lyrics in the entire score. Bryan Bunch plays a somewhat nasally but ultimately endearing teenage Henry, the love interest of Natalie, whose youthful zeal calls to mind what a younger Dan might have been like.
Which brings us to the breakout performance of the opening-night show: Beau Clark’s nuanced and passionate portrayal of Dan was intensely moving, his raw vocals beautifully conveying the struggles of a human trying to keep his own fears at bay while holding together his family through every obstacle. His journey of love and loss, his choices to fight for love no matter what the cost, resonated long after the stirring final song of hope and light brought the audience to their feet (not to mention, through multiple Kleenex®).
Director Timothy E. Locklear has done a commendable job bringing such a fine performance out of a small and talented cast, creating an emotional experience with immense cultural relevance. This show is raw, challenging, brazenly humorous, and unabashedly realistic. It is not for the faint of heart, and not to be missed. NRACT’s production of Next to Normal plays Friday-Sunday through Nov. 11th.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 30th Raleigh, NC Triangle Review review by Yvette L. Holder and Kurt Benrud: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/10/next-to-normal-at-nract-is-entertaining-captivating-and-thought-provoking-we-highly-recommend-it/.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents NEXT TO NORMAL at 8 p.m. Nov. 2 and 3, 3 p.m. Nov. 4, 8 p.m. Nov. 9 and 10, and 3 p.m. Nov. 11 at 7713-51 Lead Mine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27615, in the Food Lion Shopping Center.
TICKETS: $20 Sunday ($18 students, teachers, seniors, and active-duty military personnel) and $22 Friday and Saturday ($20 students, teachers, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919-866-0228 or https://tickets.nract.org/#/event-details/next-to-normal.
Next to Normal (2008 Off-Broadway and 2009 Broadway musical): http://nexttonormal.com/ (official website), https://www.mtishows.com/next-to-normal (Music Theatre International), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/4658 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/next-to-normal-483135 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Next_to_Normal (Wikipedia).
The Script: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://alliancetheatre.org/sites/default/files/N2N%20Study%20Guide.pdf (Alliance Theatre of Atlanta, GA).
Tom Kitt (music): http://www.tomkittband.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/13205 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/tom-kitt-100673 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Kitt_(musician) (Wikipedia).
Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/35785 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/brian-yorkey-483138 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Yorkey (Wikipedia).
Timothy E. Locklear (director and NRACT managing artistic director): http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/492075-timothy-e-locklear (AboutTheArtists bio) and https://www.facebook.com/telock335 (Facebook page).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She also studied dance at San Diego Mesa College and acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and at The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. She has performed locally at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs, Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum in Cary. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.