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2/25/2023        NEXT TO NORMAL           Atlanta Lyric Theatre /  Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series



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Last July, I positively drooled over the Jennie T. Anderson Concert production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning musical, Next to Normal, calling it “nothing short of brilliant.”  To tide us over until their new season starts, Atlanta Lyric Theatre has chosen to restage it for a two-week run, keeping (most of) the cast intact and tweaking the staging not at all (that I could see).  The restaging confirms, if nothing else, the strength of this show and this production.   It is heartbreakingly on-target with its depiction of the stress mental illness puts on family, and it showcases an ensemble of actor/singers and a support orchestra of musicians who make the material soar.  Let me tweak my July 2022 review a bit, but my reaction is almost exactly the same.


Welcome to the Goodman household.  Mother Diana dithers around during the wee hours as son Gabe comes in late and daughter Natalie wallows in insomnia.  Dad (Dan) wakes up and it’s soon apparent, under tension thick enough to butter, that something is amiss.  Diana suffers from schizophrenia, and everyone else struggles to cope.  Since her condition involves delusions and hallucinations, not all is as it seems.  As the play continues, Diana is subjected to one failed therapy after another, as her family struggles (in vain) to hold together with a modicum of normalcy.  Or, at best, next-to-normalcy.


This is, admittedly, a heartbreakingly sad, even downbeat musical.  Yet it is filled with many many moments of joy and humor and love, all of which makes the sharp plot turns and points of sadness more poignant, more piercing.  Some have called it depressing, but I disagree – yes, the ending can be interpreted as downbeat, but it is also, curiously hopeful, and musically, anything BUT downbeat.  Even if the household tears itself apart (and the spoiler police insist

me saying “Not that I’m saying it does”), there is hope for the characters themselves, that they have a future brighter than the shades of purple we’ve been witnessing,


Almost completely sung-through, this show boasts a score that seems to grow in quality as time passes (it has been over ten years since I first heard it).  From the opening “Just Another Day” through the satiric “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” through the wistful “I Miss the Mountains,” through the heartbreaking “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” every song is a gem, every song uncovers layers of emotion and heartbreak and ecstasy.  But my absolute favorites have to include  “You Don’t Know”/”I am the One,” an angerfest in which Diana and Dan clearly outline the love/hate boundaries of their marriage that struggles to survive.  Even better is Gabe’s ecstatic anthem “I’m Alive,” in which nothing NOTHING will stop his every-breath-is-a-wonder appreciation of life.  Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics) have created a score that gets better every time I hear it, and I’ve heard it more often than many more recent shows.  (Even an episode of Riverdale centering on this score couldn’t ruin it.)


To make things better, this is a near-perfect cast and production.  In the central role of Diana, Mary Nye Bennett meets every elevated expectation we have based on her impressive history of performances.  Here she is a massive bundle of vulnerability, sass, and need.  We see the world through her eyes, witness her hallucinations as reality, are surprised when painful truths are revealed.  And she makes us believe.  We share her every joy and frustration.  We share the grief which a too-simple analysis tells us is the root of her condition (it may be a trigger, it’s certainly not a cause).  More to the point, we agonize with her as she makes her final choice, understanding it even as we question it.  This is an outstanding performance that hits every note correctly -- musically, theatrically, emotionally, artistically.


In support are the equally wonderful Taylor Buice as husband Dan, patient, loving, clueless.  Replacing the always-impressive Lilliangina Quiñones in the dual (but similar) roles of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fry, Kayce Denice brings a very different feel and interpretation, no less valid, no less effective, infusing the characters with her own brand of wit, dedication, and empathy (even when we’re seeing her through Diana’s eyes).   Brian Wittenberg is funny and hapless as Natalie’s stoner boyfriend, and Golbanoo Setayesh (who impressed in a small role in the recent stream of The Wild Party)  makes Natalie all teenage angst and genius-prodigy-prickle.  Finally, as Gabe, Jacob Ryan Smith is cocky, arrogant, and alive, everything you expect (and want) in an “ideal” son.  When the six ensemble-ize, their voices blend like a dream, and make the production soar.


Director Amanda Wansa Morgan has used the expanded rehearsal period endemic to a full production well, matching (but not overtaking) the “finished” feel of last summer’s concert.  It doesn’t hurt that she gets skillful and dazzling support from lighting designer Michael Carver and projection designer Bobby Johnson.  (The projections run the gamut from building exteriors setting particular scenes to surreal designs reflecting Diana’s current state of mind to blank canvases focusing us on the characters and the moments.)


And the orchestra, co-music-directed by John Michael D’Haviland and Holt McCarley (who conducts from the keyboard) is impressive and skilled, hitting every note precisely, every mood profoundly. These seven musicians, including strings, electronics, and hard-driving electric guitars excel in a gamut of musical styles and genres.


Schizophrenia (and mental illness in general) seems an unlikely subject for a musical.  But, when all is said and done, what better way to show a mind at war with itself, a complex web of emotion that binds and constricts even it as it frees and complicates?  No, this is a show that is fully deserving of its already considerable roster of honors, a show that moves an audience more profoundly than most “high-mindedly” serious musicals.  It is a show that tackles a subject in the way that theatre does best – by creating characters we care about and who have stories that mingle and conflict and divide, and then by framing it all in a musical whose songs persist in memory, even as time inexorably fades into the past.  Even as time insistently clings to the present.


Next to Normal is a show that shows us the true price of love – to experience love is to experience grief and anger and frustration and patience and the whole d^&n array of obsessions that define us as human.  I can’t ask for any more from a show, and I have seen too few that deliver at the level of this production.


Day after the day, Next to Normal will linger in my memory.

    --  Brad Rudy  (    #TheLyric     #NextToNormal)


Due to a confluence of scheduling mash-ups, another production of Next to Normal will be opening on Friday in Cartersville.  Since any review of that would be problematic – How can one fairly engage with a low-budget non-professional staging less than a week after seeing a production that carries its access to the area’s top-professional talent on its sleeve?  -- I will (probably) use next week’s review as an opportunity to do an even deeper dive into the score and libretto itself – how will two productions seen this close together open up the show for variance and consistency?  It’s a good thing I really really love this play!

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