Next to Normal – An Atlanta Theater Fans Review

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Atlanta's Alliance Theatre presents Next to Normal

Bob Gaynor and Catherine Porter in Next to Normal. Photo by Greg Mooney

Every once in a while I see a show that from start to finish has me mesmerized. Thinking of nothing else except the world that is unfolding in front of me, I am completely emotionally invested. Such was the case several years ago as I sat in Broadway’s Booth Theatre and witnessed Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal for the first time.

The non-conventional musical opened on Broadway in 2009 and had a national tour that followed. Now, it is finally making its premiere in Atlanta. Certain theater organizations should have fought to have the National Tour come to Atlanta, but with the Alliance Theatre producing the city’s premiere of the show, theatergoers are undoubtedly rewarded for their patience.

The musical centers on the family of Diana Goodman (Catherine Porter), a suburban housewife who suffers from bipolar disorder.  As her condition continues to worsen, Diana and her husband Dan (Bob Gaynor) search for help while their daughter Natalie (Lyndsay Ricketson) finds solace with her new boyfriend Henry (Jordan Craig).

Mental illness plays a big role in the musical, but at its core, the musical is really an exploration of the human condition. It challenges us to discover how circumstances require us to relate to one another and how we must deal with the grief that life sometimes provides.

Kitt’s electric score is excellently delivered by conductor Boko Suzuki and his band. The show is almost entirely sung, and Director Scott Schwartz has assembled a cast which displays strong vocal endurance to manage the show’s moving score. Schwartz provides a unique vision and staging to the powerful drama.

The abstract set of the Broadway production is replaced with a striking life-size three level house that opens and closes during different scenes. The set, designed by Kevin Rigdon, and Mike Baldassari’s lighting design allow for some impressive scene changes.

As Diana, Porter creates a compelling character, allowing the audience to see the different sides of bipolar disorder. She navigates the various stages of the character while tackling the challenging score with ease. It is easy to see why she was cast in the Broadway production. Her performance, however, isn’t heartbreaking, and it should be. She elicits empathy, but her emotion doesn’t leave the stage as it does with her co-star Gaynor, whose emotion exudes through his passionate vocals. His visible tears allow the audience to experience his pain.

Gaynor gives all he has to his portrayal of Dan, but the staging of “I’ve Been” and “I Am the One (Reprise)” limit the emotional power these scenes potentially have, which were evident in the Broadway and National Tour productions, as well as a another regional staging I saw.

In the role of Dan and Diana’s son Gabe, Cary Tedder portrays a darker version of the playful character. Vocally, he is flawless and impresses, but the idea that he is a demon haunting Diana and the family just doesn’t sit well. It makes the character a sort of antagonist, and the show loses a powerful tenderness that this character could provide.

Next to Normal at Altanta's Alliance Theatre

Jordan Craig and Lyndsay Ricketson in Next to Normal. Photo by Greg Mooney

Portraying the isolated and angry daughter Natalie, Ricketson gives one of the strongest performances in the show. The anger, confusion and sadness that the character feels come alive through her voice and body language. She becomes most passionate when she sings “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” making it one of the production’s highlights. Plus, her chemistry with Gaynor and Porter creates a powerful dynamic that allows for some of the show’s most touching moments.

Ricketson also displays noteworthy chemistry with Craig, who plays her boyfriend Henry. The character of Henry deserves to be played a little less geeky than the way Schwartz and Craig present him. Self-described as “lazy, a loner, a bit of stoner – it’s true,” Henry is all of these things but geek he is not. Craig wows, however, with his vocals, perfectly hitting the notes of “Perfect for You,” which other actors often can’t quite succeed in singing.

Based on the masterful book and score alone, Next to Normal deserves to be seen, but aside from the merits of the material, the Alliance Theatre’s well designed and executed staging will leave you more than impressed. It is a breath-taking emotional journey that should not be missed. With a runtime of approximately two and a half hours including one intermission, Next to Normal plays the Alliance Theatre through November 11, 2012. For tickets and more information, please visit the Alliance Theatre’s website.

– A. Wesley