Can’t stop yourself from seeing rock musicals tackling mental illness and the disintegration of the “normal” family suburban life? Then you likely witnessed Second Stage’s recent production of “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer-prize winning musical written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt and staged by director Sarah Corey ’15. Before our Thanksgiving Break, “Next to Normal” gave many audience members a powerful reminder to be thankful for the relative stability of their own families. It also made me thankful for my introduction to this fantastic musical. This was a production focused on executing tech and powerful acting as well as near-flawless singing.
Upon entering the theater, I was struck by how the set was structured. Set designer Cara Sunberg ’15 and master carpenter Anders Dohlman ’15 did a fantastic job creating an elaborate set intertwining multiple rooms of the Goodman home that allowed for dynamic staging. The pit orchestra, led by their killer musical director, Marc Whittington ’14, was seated behind a room of the house, successfully enhancing the music’s significance to the production. There was a surrealism to the design as well: colors were oddly shifted and walls had tattered edges, and all of this left the impression that something was off in the world we were about to see unfold.
The show opened with a powerful number, “Just Another Day,” in which we were introduced to the family dynamics of the main characters. Paul McCallion ’15 played Gabe, the rebellious teenage son; Michael Linden ’15 played Dan, the father trying to hold his family together; Beanie Feldstein ’15 played Natalie, the daughter sick of her family’s problems; and Tess Jonas ’15 starred as Diana, the mother who ends the song acting hysterical, making sandwiches on the floor. This song about everyday life, which starkly ends with the main character broken down, set the tone for this awesomely unhinged musical.
After seeing some of the family’s day-to-day life, including Natalie meeting a cute, piano-playing stoner named Henry (played by Cole Chiumento ’14) and Diana getting varying, confusing prescriptions for her illness from her doctor (played by Liam Tran ’17), we see Diana singing happy birthday and presenting a cake for her son, Gabe, when Dan stops her and reminds her that her son died 16 years ago. As someone unfamiliar with the production, I was flabbergasted to learn that Gabe had been imagined by Diana the whole time and thought McCallion pulled off the twist amazingly well.
I was enthralled by watching Gabe battle with Dan for Diana’s acknowledgement and affection throughout the song, “You Don’t Know.” Diana’s struggle between the real and unreal is delightfully complicated by the physical embodiment of her delusion on stage, which makes the audience either sympathize with Gabe or view him as the dastardly antagonist. So while McCallion’s singing was on point throughout the production, and his pre-reveal portrayal of Gabe was well executed, I felt he could have made a bigger choice with Gabe’s character once we knew he was a figment of Diana’s imagination.
Eventually, with Diana not getting any better, Dan reluctantly convinces her to forget her son by taking on electroconvulsive therapy. Linden continued the trend of phenomenal singing within the production and played the intention of his character very believably, allowing the audience to feel the weight of a collapsing family falling onto his shoulders. Despite a consistent performance, Linden grappled with bringing nuance to the role that brought it outside of the unhappily married father archetype.
Diana returns home and has lost nearly two decades of her memory. Under the stress of her mother’s issues, Natalie begins sabotaging her relationship with Henry, slacking off at school, and taking an increased amount of drugs. While I am bothered writing-wise with the “good girl” character whose boyfriend goes from smoking weed to using much harder drugs, Feldstein portrayed the character believably and removed all feeling of cliché. Feldstein wears her musical theater experience on her sleeve, delivering perfect singing (and love ballads with Chiumento), strong one-liners, emotional depth, and a well-rounded character. Feldstein worked well off the energy of the other actors, and her presence augmented the conflict within “Next to Normal.”
As Diana starts to regain memory of her son, the visions of him return as well. She leaves her home to deal with her problems on her own, no longer having to act as a burden for Dan or Natalie. From beginning to end, Jonas was the glue that held the entire performance together. Jonas brought great chemistry to her interactions with each member of the ensemble and gave the musical that crucial family feeling.
Jonas allowed the audience to understand Diana by portraying her as someone relatable who struggles with mental illness instead of a stereotyped crazy person, showing her impressive versatility by portraying a character who is constantly undergoing ever-changing treatments and medications in addition to having emotions that turn on a dime. In an impressive group of vocalists, Jonas shone through with technique, vocal range, and power that elevated the lyrics and gave them sensational emotional depth. Diana is the focal character of the show, and Jonas’ stamina allowed her to be engaging and dynamic throughout and to smack the audience in the face with rock sung at its best.
The technical aspects of the production were very well done, with lighting expert Rachel Leicher ’15 doing a great job of illuminating a multi-faceted set, props, and costumes fitting perfectly with the contemporary work. Despite a few minor grumbles, sound came through clearly (which has often been an obstacle for Second Stage musicals). The pit orchestra was fantastic throughout, and considering the amazing caliber of the singing as well, Whittington deserves a lot of credit for his contribution to the production. Although this isn’t a big song-and-dance type musical, the choreography brought by Miranda Orbach ’15 really strengthened certain numbers, notably “Catch Me I’m Falling.”
Yet ultimately, Corey deserves the credit for bringing this musical to life. This was a work she has long had a personal connection with, and when she wasn’t given the rights to direct it last semester, she wasn’t discouraged. When she was given another chance this semester, she nailed the execution. She casted perfectly, considering both vocal and acting talent; elicited impressive work from talented designers; and coordinated musicians and choreography as well. Corey’s work has set a new standard for the college musical in having exactness in tech and acting instead of sacrificing these aspects of the production for the vocals. The cast and crew of “Next to Normal” should be proud of their incredible performances, as they created what was truly an unforgettable theatric experience.