Next to Normal is a bit of a paradox. It’s light and heavy. It’s serious and casual. It’s structured with great formality in a formula that climbs out of a soul of emotional chaos. The musical drama about a family dealing with mental illness in suburban America briskly sprints through some of the heaviest themes imaginable. All-In Productions’ staging of the show this month manages a fleetly deft dance through the passions and aggressions of middle-class life without compromising the thematic depth of suburban madness. From the intimate stage of the Next Act Theatre space, the energy of the rock musical can hit a full, crushing blast when it needs to. In other moments, it delicately reveals very subtle, unspoken and ephemeral human emotions.
Carrie Gray is strikingly witty as Diana--a wife and mother suffering from mental illness. She’s extremely articulate in the motions and expressions, fears and anxieties of a vividly bi-polar reality. Gray is a heroically vulnerable as she supports the character in her journey through treatments which challenge her understanding of her own past. It’s a touchingly sympathetic portrayal at the center of the ensemble.
Steve Pfisterer plays her husband Dan. He brings strength and compassion to the stage as a very human emotional anchor for Diana who struggles against his wife’s condition while battling his own inner conflicts. Pfisterer and Gray have a very earthbound chemistry about them that serves as a really solid foundation for some of the more aggressive songs in the show. His performance of “I Am the One,” ignites an emotional/musical intensity that would overpower the action were it not for Gray’s silent strength contrasting against his. He’s trying to get her to trust him and she wants to do so.
Writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt follow-up “I Am the One,” with “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” Two of the best songs in the whole show launch themselves into the story back to back. I love the fusion between those two songs. No dialogue. No rest. No space to breathe. We go straight from one explosive expression of rock’n’roll frustration to the next. As Diana and Dan are trying to connect in one room of the house, their daughter Natalie is in her room dealing with feeling distant and insubstantial in the shadow of her brother Gabe.
Austin Dorman is an intermittent force of nature as Gabe...appearing quite dramatically and then vanishing. Hailey Hentz sculpts a fascinatingly textured portrayal of Natalie. The character is under tremendous stress at a time in high school when her schedule is filled with studying and practicing piano and million other concerns. There’s real passion written into the dialogue, but Hentz cleverly plays that passion with listless frustration until a song like “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” comes along. Then the passion shoots out into the music. Listless, nuanced frustration in spoken dialogue. Passionate emotion in song. It’s not an exaggerated contrast by any means, but it’s distinct enough to feel like a really sharply thoughtful connection between actor and character. In her bio, Hentz mentions this Natalie has been a dream role for her. It shows.
Adam Qutaishat handles some of the more challenging bits around the edges of the production as Diana’s doctor. The character is kind of an abstract medical professional, but Qutaishat is able to imbue that with some distinct personality. Connor Dalzin has a tender persistence about him as a boy who has come to care about Natalie.
Rock musicals can be really difficult to bring across on a technical level. Director Tim Backes has done an admirable job of keeping the immense intensity of a show like this from overpowering the space. A few brief and minor sound issues aside, the energy of the piece is kept relatively well-balanced.
My wife and I teared-up numerous time over the course of the show.
For extra intensity sit where we sat: in the front row right next to the kitchen table on the side.
True...the marginally annoying visual of those body mics that everyone is wearing IS that much more visible from the front row, but the tech fades into the background right away in the rush of the show’s energy. One rarely gets a chance to be this close to a musical of any kind, but a rock musical like this. . . it’s really, really powerful. Pfisterer launches into “I Am the One,” and you’re right there at the kitchen table with him. Moments like that are that much more powerful from the front row.
All In Productions' staging of Next to Normal continues through Sep. 16 at the Next Act Theatre space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit All In online.