With Timothy E. Locklear’s direction, musical direction by Michael Santangelo, and choreography by Jess Barbour, the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre has scored another hit with Next to Normal, a 2008 Off-Broadway and 2009 Broadway musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt). NRACT’s venue brings us super-close to the characters, thereby creating an intimate feeling of “Broadway-in-your-lap” as we are treated to minute details such as barely perceptible changes in facial expressions and subtle changes in the direction of a character’s gaze.
Next to Normal raises a lot of questions concerning the subject of mental illness. What is “normal”? Should we set “normal” as a goal? If so, what do we stand to lose when we “win”? If not, should we take steps to appear “normal”? And how will the course(s) of action that we choose affect people that are close to us? The action takes us on a roller-coaster ride of heartbreak, of fighting for self-control, of denial, of drug-dependency, of contemplations of suicide, and, subsequently, on a second wild ride of choices — choices the family must make in dealing with these circumstances.
Diana Goodman suffers from bipolar disorder (among other mental afflictions), and the play brings us up-close-and-personal as we are pulled into her life and into her mind. We meet her loving and caring husband Dan, her anxious, perfectionist musician daughter Natalie, Natalie’s love interest (a fellow musician named Henry), and two doctors (Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden). And we experience the depths of Diana’s connection to (and affection for) her son Gabe.
- Aubrey Comperatore captures the nuances of the challenges that Diana faces as well as the character’s despair. When manic, Diana breezes along with an unassailable air of confidence; when Diana is depressed, Comperatore pulls us in to share the heartbreak.
- Beau Clark’s Dan is the picture of concern. Worried about his wife’s well-being, his family’s image, and his daughter’s future, he soldiers forth. (Side Note: Seeing a tear rolling down Clark’s cheek was the final straw which led to an amazing discovery: it is hard to applaud while clutching a damp Kleenex tissue.)
- As Natalie, Averi Zimmerman conveys the hints of “a genetic predisposition” toward her mother’s condition. Zimmerman is impressive as she “plays” piano in an early scene. Does she actually play Mozart’s piece? Or is she simply miming the fingering? Doesn’t matter — it’s impressive either way.
- Bryan Bunch portrays a Henry who is as passionate about his music as Natalie is about hers. This character affords the play with a metaphor of jazz vs. classical — adherence to form and structure vs. improvisation — a metaphor for the various states of the human mind.
- Portraying Gabe (Diana’s son), Joshua Altman establishes a haunting, dominating-yet-marginal presence when onstage. Altman creates a character that both needs and is-needed-by his mother.
- Greg Toft creates the roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden who treat Diana. He skillfully navigates his way through the real and the surreal as both of these mental health professionals are encountered by their patient.
- Scenic designer Scott Winton Wray has created an appropriately unique set. Fractured frames hang at skewed angles above an ethereal set, which is empty except for several stairways-to-nowhere, and the upstage-center staircase is on a turntable which enables rotation at key points. Furniture is rolled in on occasion when needed in a scene. In addition, Wray has chosen a color scheme that emphasizes the not-quite-normal.
- Jeremy David Clos has supplied quite a wide array of costumes for these characters. We were especially impressed by the choices of colors in key scenes — similar colors creating a unity at times, contrasting colors encouraging us to delve into differences, and conflicting colors emphasizing randomness and dissonance.
- Lighting, designed by Aaron Alderman, helps the scenes move between Diana’s exterior interaction with her family and physicians and the interior catacombs of her mind, and these effects are augmented by the handiwork of sound designers Michael Santangelo and Jaydon Shockley.
Key Moments to Watch for in the Action:
- Diana’s head-spinning episode as she makes sandwiches for the family.
- Diana’s doctor appointments in which she discusses her episodes and her medications.
- A “happy-time” family get-together that turns dark when Diana comes out with a cake.
- Natalie’s new life change as she figures out how to cope with intensely building stress.
- Diana’s dance with her son and where it leads.
- Diana’s tough decision concerning a life-altering procedure.
- Diana’s one-on-one with Henry and her discovery concerning him.
- The music box scene.
- Diana’s conclusion — what she feels would be best for her and her family.
- Dan’s very first interaction with Gabe.
Scenes That Will Tickle You:
- The romance scenes between Natalie and Henry.
- The dual romance scenes between Natalie/Henry and Diana/Dan.
- The slight differences between the color-scheme of the floor and that of the staircases.
- The use of freeze-frame — certain characters freeze in the scene while others continue interacting. Very effective!
- The choice to costume stage hands in white jackets during key scenes.
- The use of reverb during certain speeches.
- Abrupt-yet-smooth transactions between different styles of music.
From the Department of Picky-Picky:
- A few of the actors have trouble hitting high notes now and then.
- On occasion, bits of the dialogue are too muffled to hear.
- As good as they were, we wondered if the musical effects might have been approved by the use of additional percussion.
Like all of our favorites, Next to Normal is entertaining, captivating, and thought-provoking — we 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 (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).
A native of North Carolina, Yvette L. Holder has studied theater at three institutions: the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (New York), and N.C. Central University, where she received a BA in Dramatic Arts. Yvette also promotes and produces comedy theater, as well as working with playwrights around the country during the development stage of their work. She hosts a monthly play reading session: “Sips and Scripts” at Imurj in downtown Raleigh. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read Yvette and Kurt’s reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.