Last night, I witnessed one of the first area Community Theatre productions of the Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony Award-winning musical Next to Normal. After seeing the show on Broadway a few years back, I could not imagine how any other production could compare with that production, which won a Tony for Alice Ripley’s intense performance as Diana. I am glad to report that I was very impressed with Taking Flight Theatre Company’s ability to tackle such an intense and emotionally charged show.
Next to Normal, directed by Jessie Roberts and musically directed by Walter McCoy, follows the story of a family learning to deal with a mother and wife’s worsening bipolar disorder. As the mother – Diana (Holly McDade) tries to decipher between reality and fantasy, while her husband, Dan (Keith J. Miller), attempts to keep the family together. Daughter Natalie (Claire O’Brien) battles with her own issues of self-identity, and her stressful relationship with her new boyfriend Henry (Michael Bigley).
Suzanne Maloney’s set design mainly consists of an illustration of a house. There is a kitchen and desk area on the bottom floor, and portable set pieces such as chairs or hospital beds are added depending on the scene. I like how the simplicity of the set does not distract from the complicated plotlines and how Maloney makes excellent use of a small stage. However, the true brilliance of the set is a result of how Roberts incorporates it into her staging.
The house has two levels, but the main character who uses the second floor is Gabe (Daniel DeVera), Diana’s 18-year-old son. He is constantly lurking in that level, as well as traveling in and out of different rooms in order to keep an eye on the family. When the family secret regarding Gabe is finally revealed, the staging choices becomes even more fascinating.
Roberts also incorporates a lot of repetition and mimicking into her staging, which intrigued me. Usually I am not a fan of a lot of repetition, however, in this production, the choice helped convey the messages of the story. For example, in “Didn’t I See This Movie,” Diana and Natalie, though they are each in their own setting, dance the same choreography. Natalie spends much of the show attempting to separate herself from her mother, but through the choreography, Roberts conveys the idea that they are always connected and influencing each other.
Jeff Auerback’s lighting design is just as impressive as the set, particularly in his use of different lighting patterns to portray Diana’s outlandish hallucinations, and emphasizes the difference between reality and fantasy. For example, in “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” which takes place during Diana’s therapist meeting, Auerbach uses lighting to display multiple colors and doctors that were in reality, only in Diana’s head.
The vocals overall are really strong, and the cast sings Brian Yorkey (lyrics) and Tom Kitt’s (music) score passionately. Many of the actors’ solos blew me away! McDade’s rendition of “Didn’t I See This Movie” is by far her strongest piece. I loved her ability to convey such strong fear and anger at the thought of receiving electroconvulsive therapy. Miller’s “I’ve Been” is heartbreaking as he tries to sort out his feelings towards his wife’s illness and battles with the terror of being alone. Though it took some time to appreciate her acting choices in the song, O’Brien’s “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” became one of the stronger numbers in the production. Through her constant desire for perfection and anger towards feeling invisible, O’Brien creates a truly believable character who is very easy to relate.
Diana is a difficult character to successfully convey, and the actress who plays her must play her “crazy,” creating a distinction between actions of mania and depression, while still reminding the audience that she is a woman suffering from a terrible disease, and a mother who cares about her husband and daughter. McDade portrays this complicated and animated character with ease especially during her personality changes. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking, and stunning performance.
Taking Flight Theatre Company does a remarkable job with a difficult musical. The talented cast creates a strong production bringing their own creative spins to characters that Next to Normal fans, such as myself, have grown to love.
Running time: Approximately 2.5 hours, with a 15-minute intermission
Next to Normal plays through Saturday, June 16, 2012 at Taking Flight Theatre Company – at NOVA’s Loudoun Campus’ Waddell Theater – 1000 Harry Byrd Highway, in Sterling, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.