“Next to Normal”

Westport County Playhouse

If You Ask Me

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Next to Normal”, opens the Westport Country Playhouse’s (WCP) new season on a memorable note. The venue provides a welcome space for this provocative and beautiful family musical drama. Directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana with a lively and blunter tone than previous productions I’ve seen of the show, “Next to Normal” is very much in good hands.

With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, “Next to Normal” is a six-character, small-scale musical that has been embraced by regional theatres across the country where it finds more appropriate venues than the large Broadway house from where it came.

Its challenging story concerns the bi-polar mother of a family that seems to be coming apart at the seams. Diana (Dar Lee See.Ah., a powerhouse) is attempting to hold it all together while imagining conversations with her dead son, Gabe (a dynamic Daniel J. Maldonado). Husband Dan (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) is torn between administering to his wife’s needs and his troubled teenage daughter, Natalie (Ashley LaLonde), who is resentful of both parents.

“Next to Normal” displays great sympathy for all the members of this fractured family which extends to include Natalie’s quirky new boyfriend, Henry (Gian Perez) and two of Diana’s doctors (both played very well in a gender switch of the script by Katie Thompson).

The musical is mostly sung-through with haunting ballads that the accomplished Dar Lee.See Ah., in particular, spins as true storytelling magic. As a prime example, her rendition of the musical’s most poetic song, “I Miss the Mountains”, is heartrendingly moving. The creators don’t have easy answers to the issues facing this family and don’t pretend that it will all work out in the end either. But, it’s the strength of “Next to Normal” that is seems so human and humane every step of the way.

At WCP, the main quartet of singers is uniformly excellent but often find themselves trying to out-shout each other over a very loud orchestra. And, it did bother me a tad that, even though all immensely talented, the children seems to be a decade too old and the parents a decade too young.

Some other caveats: while Cory Pattak has contributed a visually impressive lighting design, scenic designer Adam Koch comes up short. Using the entire Playhouse stage, the home setting has two separate staircases to a pair of bedrooms. There are three entrances at the front of the house and a kitchen that attempts to adjust to become a clinic, nightclub and the backstage of a theatre. The non-stop pumping of dry ice onto the stage is another baffling mystery and distraction.

But in the end this is a musical that effortlessly and honestly moves one to tears and, in the hands of this gifted company, is well worth a trip to Westport.

“Next to Normal” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through April 24th. For further information, call the box office at: 203-227-4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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