Theater review: “Next to Normal”
Andrea Rivette and Russell Rowland in “Next to Normal.” Photo Credit: Jason Collins Photography
Imagine that Maria von Trapp from “The Sound of Music” replaced her favorite things of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens with her favorite pills of Zoloft, Paxil and Xanax.
Yet when Diana Goodman, a mentally ill suburban housewife, in Cadence Theatre Company in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Next to Normal,” now on stage at the November Theatre, sings of her infatuation with her bipolar disorder medications with a nod to these lovable Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, she’s a delusional and forbidding image of the disastrous effects of an overmedicated society – and/or of the numbing effects of the suburbs on a housewife’s psyche. Short Pump housewives beware!
As portrayed marvelously by Andrea Rivette, Diana is a fragile cipher of deep female emotional wounds, which have adversely impacted her relationship to her family, including her husband Dan (Duke Lafoon) and her children Natalie (Christie Jackson) and Gabe (Terence Sullivan), and have made her a victim to her own psychiatric treatments: In “Who’s Crazy”/ “My Psychopharmacologist and I” she’s too emotionally vulnerable and attracted to the allure of her medications to completely register, when her psychiatrist informs her, of the drugs’ most serious side effect: fatality.
Is it possible that Diana is a victim of a Zoloft-happy psychiatric establishment? Or does she exist in a world that relies too heavily on quick-fix pharmaceuticals instead of long-term therapy? Given our country’s conversation on mental disorders and psychiatric treatments in light of recent national tragedies – Boston Marathon Massacre; Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting – you’ll discern that “Next to Normal” is as brazen as it is timely in its focus on mental health.
And under Chase Kniffen’s direction, the three-hour musical poignantly but modestly captures Diana’s increasing mental deterioration, compounded by all the mystery that already surrounds personality disorders. Admittedly, the knockout cast’s vocals are outstanding, imbued with chilling and bravo-inspiring crescendos and diminuendos, but the musical’s emotional resonance remains unfortunately flat: Most noticeably in Act 2 when the plotline becomes ever more redundant.
But still the cast does exceptional work here. Lafoon brings a lot of love for his wife in Dan, willing to stay true to his marital vows even during her psychotic episodes when their marriage is tested the most. And Jackson imbues Natalie with the teenage angst and desire for self-improvisation over social rigidity with vocal bravura.
Russell Rowland brings a fierce and resonant singing voice to his roles as the psychiatrists, who all view Diana more as a clinical drug trial than as a frail human being. And then there’s Henry, Natalie’s romance, played by John Mincks, who channels the character with lovability as he increasingly connects with Natalie, giving her emotional stability against her family’s instability.
Terence Sullivan, an RTCC-award winning actor, certainly displays the vocal chops to suffuse Gabe with the passion and tenacity of a teenage son. But there’s a development opportunity in Sullivan’s role to connect more authentically with his fellow actors. Sullivan’s striking voice never falters, but we miss the desperate and almost creepy demeanor written in the character.
Brian C. Barker’s set design is a structuralist frame of a house, suggesting that our lives are perhaps never fully constructed. Sue Griffin’s costume designs evoke suburban styles; K. Jenna Ferree deploys psychodramatic lighting to amp up the ambience of eccentricity. And video designs by Kniffen, Barker and Doug Wilkinson help to establish locations in scenes such as Natalie’s school, Diana’s mental institution and so on.
“Next to Normal,” with the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, isn’t the feel-good, optimistic fodder you’d get in “The Sound of Music.” Instead, it’s dark, intense and ultimately much more dramatically satisfying than raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
“Next to Normal” runs through May 18 at the The Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.cadencetheatre.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
“We eagerly look forward to next month’s program.”June 29, 2016
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