NEXT TO NORMAL with BoHo Theatre, Review – Delicate Minds and Painful Emotions Explode in Song

 

This is my fifth time seeing Next to Normal, and second time reviewing the show, yet I still found myself wiping away tears and feeling the gut-wrenching anguish of loss almost as much as I did the first time I saw it. Emotional pain is not a place we feel comfortable exploring.  Naturally, we try to avoid grief as much as humanly possible. There’s that all-too common, and all-too American, defense mechanism of hiding our pain behind a smile. But, Next to Normal, shows us just how devastating this can be.

 

This show is deeply cathartic and even liberating  in how it embraces pain as a necessary part of human existence. It shows, in rock-operatic style, that confronting pain allows us to cope with it. And, conversely, by fighting, ignoring, or outright denying it we end up only causing more pain.

 

Gilbert Domally (Gabe), Colette Todd (Diana) and Donterrio Johnson (Dan)

 

Next to Normal, in other words, does not qualify as a standard “feel-good musical”. Instead it’s what many have described as a “feel-everything” musical. It’s a brave and emotionally-penetrating show about a housewife named Diana (Colette Todd), who suffers from what one of her two psychologists (both played by Peter Robel) describes as a form of “bi-polar disorder with delusional episodes”. Her mental condition began to deteriorate after a traumatic event happened 16 years earlier.

 

Diana’s disorder takes a toll on her family. Her husband, Dan (Donterrio Johnson), was also deeply affected by the experience, but has instead kept his emotions bottled up so that he can focus on helping his wife to “catch her” every time she falls. In other words, he perpetuates denial of loss as a way of moving on. This makes things especially difficult once Diana decides to suddenly stop taking her medication.

 

Meanwhile, their teenage daughter Natalie (Ciera Dawn), feels isolated by her family’s emotional strife and longs to find a place of normality of her own. She quickly finds a sense of comfort with her classmate Henry (Bradley Atkinson), a stoner who inadvertently opens her up to a world of drugs as a way of escaping pain. Their other kid, Gabe (Gilbert Domally), acts out as both the ideal son and devilish tormentor to their parent’s inability to confront their pain.

 

Peter Robel (Doctor Madden) and Colette Todd (Diana)

 

There is much to admire about this Pulitzer-Prize winning musical. And indeed, under the competent direction of the seasoned Linda Fortunato, there is also much to admire about BoHo Theatre’s intimate rendition of it. Fortunato’s stark approach to the heavy material puts further emphasis on the characters’ emotions and their connections. There’s less in the way of props, costumes, or even clever set designs. This minimalistic interpretation makes the emotions feel much more volatile, even intense in places (the confrontational songs, “You Don’t Know” and “I Am the One” are prime examples of this).

 

Unfortunately, as is always the case, minimalism also means even the most minor of flaws in the source material suddenly become much more noticeable for an audience. Strip away the excess from Next to Normal and the show starts to feel awfully similar to one of those dysfunctional-family movies you’d see on Lifetime, about forgiveness and healing… only difference is that here it’s set to music. A couple of questionable lyrics that passed me by unnoticed before, suddenly felt awkward when exposed in such a minimal setting (“if you climb on my back then we both can fly” to name but one example). And the final number felt almost tacked on as a rushed afterthought to end the show on a more positive light.

 

Colette Todd (Diana) and Gilbert Domally (Gabe)

 

Still, Fortunato’s production has an energy to it that doesn’t seem to dissipate. The second act, which previously felt like the longer and slower act for me, instead came off fast-paced and immensely effective here. Next to Normal has a very cinematic foundation to it already, and when given skilled direction the show finds its pace. The music, written by composer Tom Kitt, keeps the tension up by not really finishing most of the songs. There’s no room for the story to pause to allow the audience to applaud and songs overlap in places by beginning where one song ends. Every scene dissolves seamlessly into the next, sometimes even interrupting each other.

 

Colette Todd (Diana)

 

Diana, is the central character, and her sense of loss proves to be the catalyst for everyone else’s emotional pain throughout. And although I never once questioned Colette Todd’s emotional commitment it does seem like she’s playing a woman with more of a broken soul than with a broken mind. It’s not a wrong choice; in fact Diana herself questions her mental prognosis as she sings, “What if the cut, the burn, the break, were never in my brain, or in my blood, but in my soul?” It’s an open question as to how much of Diana’s mental state is actually bi-polar disorder and how much of it is from repressing her pain – there’s even a song devoted to this question, appropriately called “Who’s Crazy?”

 

Yet, downplaying the disorder also erases all the fragility from Diana - the fear and danger of Diana’s self-destructive nature is missed, and thus we also lose a sense of connection in understanding the disorder itself.  The actress is giving us tremendous amounts of grief as both her emotional attachment to her past and her maternal instincts are spot on, even very touching.

 

Gilbert Domally (Gabe), Colette Todd (Diana) and Donterrio Johnson (Dan)

 

Nevertheless, there’s not much imbalance in her state of mind. Ideally Diana should be both emotionally and psychologically injured – who wouldn’t be after 16 years of various medications? The erratic manic highs tangled with Diana’s dark intense lows were sorely missing. A lot of this also could be how Todd’s Diana comes off a little too sardonic for my personal liking. The actress often slips into a dry mocking tone, which gave her scenes a lighter touch (overall this production had more humor than any other I’ve seen), however, wry sarcasm also lowered the stakes. It dissipates Diana’s sense of peril when her personality is brought down to the level of a teenager. I personally find Next to Normal to be the most compelling when we actually feel alarm for Diana’s well-being.

 

There are other moments where I hoped Todd would’ve probed into some deeper levels in the text. A prime example of this is Diana’s signature number, “I Miss the Mountains”, where she laments about all the years she’s lost from being tranquilized into feeling empty inside by 16 years of various medications and misdiagnoses. Although sung beautifully, Todd’s acting choices were too static and obvious. She played a majority of the song as a sad longing ballad, which it is on the surface, but dig deeper into Brian Yorkey’s lyrics and you’ll see there’s a highly specific narrative arc full of rich imagery that could be taken to a warped song of happiness at remembering a life she once had.

 

Ciera Dawn (Natalie) and Bradley Atkinson (Henry)

 

On the other spectrum, Ciera Dawn is bringing so many new shades to her role that it felt like I was watching an entirely new role altogether. Dawn’s stellar performance shows Natalie as a distraught teenager, who somehow manages to portray both tough and nerdy at the same time. Her Natalie also has the perfect balance of pent up anger and a permeating fear that she’ll end up just like her mother. Moreover, Dawn is able to find surprising amounts of humor and vulnerability in the text that were unexpected and delightful to say the least. Needless to say I hope to see more of this talented actress in the future and I have a feeling that she has a bright career ahead of her.

 

Bradley Atkinson who plays Natalie’s newfound love interest, Henry, is equally as good. Despite the character’s slacker persona, Atkinson gives Henry a well-rounded performance with immense amounts of compassion and guilt. The budding romantic chemistry between the two characters felt totally realistic, even genuinely sweet. It also made me discover how Henry and Natalie seem to heal each other throughout the play, unlike that of Diana and Dan who only keep each other from healing. It offers us a nice counterpoint to balance and contrast with the slowly disintegrating marriage of Natalie’s parents.

 

Gilbert Domally (Gabe) and Donterrio Johnson (Dan)

 

Gilbert Domally, another very talented actor, most recently seen in Dreamgirls at Porchlight Theatre, plays the 17 year old teenage son Gabe. Perhaps it was Fortunato’s blocking, but Domally seemed a little stiff on opening night.  Whereas, I wanted to see Gabe as both a controlling deceptive menace for the family as well as an enticing angel, I got the angelic charm from Domally, but it was only during the number “I Am the One” that I got a sense of the commanding demeanor that felt like true danger. And in Gabe’s big number, “I’m Alive”, the actor well… truly comes alive on stage.

 

Donterrio Johnson, as Diana’s husband Dan, gave a terrific journey throughout the play that was profoundly effective. He is an emotionally detached man, whose sole purpose is completely devoted to leading his wife to forget the past. He later becomes someone with deep insecurities and is forced to confront his own issues, especially when Dan’s inner defenses suddenly come tumbling down. Johnson’s honest rendition of “I’ve Been” late in Act One was one of the most moving performances I’ve seen in a while.

 

Donterrio Johnson (Dan)

 

Tom Kitt’s music is so smart that it deserves mention. This is a bi-polar score, emphasizing many of the character’s erratic mood swings and brilliantly allowing the music to parallel their situations:  Dan’s songs tend to be steadier and only on occasion do they come forward with a burst of erratic forcefulness giving us hints that he may be more conflicted and unsettled than he’s letting on. While Diana’s songs are layered, unpredictable, bizarre, confrontational, and even hauntingly beautiful at times. Her songs reflect the mountains “highs and lows” that she sings about and the fragmentation surrounding her confused and scared state of being. The couple’s elusive teenage son, Gabe, has most of the rock-infused defiant songs that pop in your ear and won’t go away. His songs are intentionally repetitive, sometimes frustratingly so, and very loud to give you a sense of what must be cycling through the minds of the parents.

 

At the same time, Brian Yorkey’s  lyrics leave you with more questions than answers, some even hauntingly so. In one moment their son Gabe sings about how society uses “ECT and Electric Chair to shock who we can’t save” and how after his mother lost years of memories from the ECT treatments he sings “with nothing left to remember is there nothing left to grieve?”

 

Bradley Atkinson (Henry) and Ciera Dawn (Natalie)

 

The set design by Sarah Ross, which is basically just the house with some stairs, columns, and cut-out windows and walls colored in shades of grey. It works because the home is a reminder of the family’s continual pain and Diana’s inability to escape it. On another level it also shows us the bleak outlook that people with mental disorders have on the world.

 

Lastly, although the performance space at Theatre Wit is much larger than BoHo’s usual performing space at Heartland Studio (a theatre so tiny that it can barely seat 30 people) the cast doesn’t need to belt as loudly as they did on opening night to be heard. It’s still a relatively small enclosed theatre, and since every actor is mic’d, even the softest of lines came out loud and clear. So the cast could pull back a bit on the high belts. The band too could also tone it down a few notches so as not to overshadow the actors.

 

Bottom Line: Next to Normal is recommended. If the daring choice of subject matter alone weren’t enough to admire this show, this production also is worthy of extra admiration for casting African-American actors in roles they ordinarily might never get a chance to play. Mental illness, loss, and grief affect everyone, not just one racial group. I applaud BoHo for having the courage to cast outside of the norm. Despite my familiarity with the show, I was still deeply moved by it once again. Next to Normal is truly a beautiful work of theatre. It has a lot to say about the cost of trying to be “normal”, about the elusiveness of pursuing happiness, about finding your own path, and dealing with loss. This is not a perfect production, but it does deserve an audience nonetheless – just be sure to bring some extra tissues with you when you go.

 

NEXT TO NORMAL by BoHo Theatre

Running Time: 2 Hours and 15 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission

Location: Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago IL 60657

Runs through: October 9, 2016

Curtain Times: Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM

Tickets: $27 (Thursdays and Fridays) $30 (Saturdays and Sundays)  and can be purchased online (see link above) or by calling the Box Office at (773) 975-8150

Directed by Linda Fortunato, Music by Tom Kitt, Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Book by Brian Yorkey, Music Direction by Ellen K. Morris, Assistant Direction by Angela Alise Johnson, Produced by Meg Love, Assistant Music Direction by Andrea Swanson, Scenic Design by Sarah Ross, Lighting Design by G. Max Maxin IV, Costume Design by Rachel Lambert, Sound Design by Joe Palermo, Properties Design by Natasza Naczas, Production Managed by Lindsay Brown, Stage Managed by Dalton Long

Cast: Colette Todd (Diana), Donterrio Johnson (Dan), Peter Robel (Doctor Madden/Doctor Fine), Gilbert Domally (Gabe), Ciera Dawn (Natalie), Bradley Atkinson (Henry), and Kyrie Anderson (Diana understudy).

Orchestra: Ellen K. Morris (Keyboard/Condutor), Michael Lockler (Guitar), Renee Henley (Violin/Viola), Tony Scandora (Drums), Jon Nadal and David Priest (Bass)

Photo Credits: Amy Boyle Photography

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