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‘Normal’ is emotionally stimulating

April 21, 2011
BY Sarah Reed - Theater Critic , The Herald-Star

PITTSBURGH - To say that the touring production of "Next to Normal," which recently ended its short run at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, is a thought-provoking musical that stretches the mind and emotions to what would seem their utter breaking-point or even passed their limits, is only scratching the surface.

A six-performer production, "Next to Normal" tells the story of the Goodmans, an everyday, modern family burdened by the mother of the family's bipolar disorder and depression. The musical primarily explores the trials the mother faces with her illnesses, the factors that brought her to the mental state she's in and how she strives to live her life, as well as the points of view of how the mother's disorder affects each family member personally.

Tony Award-winning actress of the original Broadway cast of "Next to Normal," Alice Ripley was an absolutely awe-inspiring combination of powerhouse actress and rock-star quality singer as Diana, the mother struggling with illness. Ripley completely bared her soul to deliver a performance that was at the same time heart-crushing and inspirational. Coupled with Ripley's tremendous vocal agility, her portrayal had the force to penetrate the soul.

Jason Watson, an understudy performing the role of Dan, Diana's steadfast husband who is desperately trying to hold his family together and make decisions about his wife's health for what he believes is her betterment, gave a strong and emotional performance. While Watson's Dan was very honest in wanting to help his wife in her suffering as well as his daughter in her own troubles, he also revealed a Dan who was coming apart at the seams and extremely vulnerable. This susceptibility, which was quite prominent in his character, made me wonder rather often whether he knew or even cared anymore what the best thing for Diana was. Watson's Dan seemed at times to be grasping selfishly after his own desires because he was so severely at his own wit's end.

Curt Hansen's Gabe, the unusually protective mother-oriented 17-year-old son whose presence is fascinatingly most often acknowledged only by Diana, did formidable work. Hansen shone particularly during the times when he had to scale the triple-level set, but his versatile acting and singing skills also were in top form and all aided him in creating a character that seamlessly came across as protective to at times possessive and rather sinister.

Emma Hunton's characterization of Natalie, the 16-year-old daughter who has been neglected affectionately her whole life by Diana, was handled with sympathetic and lovable traces now and then, but also was unnervingly unfeeling when expressing her exasperation about her mother.

Preston Sadler as Henry, a pot-experimenting, 17-year-old boy that attends Natalie's school and who provides her with friendship and eventually romance, gave a tender and genuine performance.

Jeremy Kushnier as both Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine was very distinguished and easily portrayed the complex and various emotions that both characters demanded.

The 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning libretto and 2009 Tony-Award winning lyrics by Brian Yorkey were fascinating and did not by any means leave the show's ending clearly delineated. They allowed the audience to debate how they believed the story's characters truly ended up emotionally and most importantly and grippingly, it led the audience to really pay attention to the words spoken and sung by the characters and match them against the characters' actions to form their opinions of the sincerity and compassion of the characters for Diana's happiness.

Did the Goodman family really find contentment with their lives and one another, or did they simply finally find a way to comfortably distance themselves from their problems? Were the characters truly all for Diana's well being or after a selfish desire to be rid of her?

These are just some of the questions you may have been left with if you saw the production.

The Tony Awarding-winning score by Tom Kit, though mostly rock and pop-based, contained a wide variety of musical genres which raised the emotional intensity of the piece to an incredibly high arch.

This musical completely breaks the stereotype of what people usually think a musical is - something only meant to frivolously entertain. But the musical's purpose, though thoroughly engaging, is to make its audiences think and feel.

The touring production accomplished both tasks exceptionally well by truthfully depicting human struggle from several different standpoints in a way that exposes even the most subtle heart-breaking emotions, and depicting the effects of mental illness on its inhabiter and their family.

"Next to Normal" is a truly rare masterpiece of musical theater that has the potency to touch many types of people, but it affects most deeply those who are or those who know someone struggling with mental illness.

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