Reston Community Players Next To NormalBy Bob Ashby • Mar 11th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Reston Community Players: (Info) (Web)
Reston Community Center, Reston, VA
Through March 23rd
2:25 with one intermission
$23/$20 Senior, Junior
Reviewed March 9th, 2013
The award-laden and frequently produced contemporary musical Next to Normal (music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) derives much of its acclaim from its vibrant treatment of its difficult and troubling subject matter: the effect of a mother’s severe mental illness on herself and her family. Like its characters, who ultimately seek a life that, if not perfect and normal, is next to normal, the current Reston Community Players production, though not without flaws, is next to excellent.
As Urinetown‘s Officer Lockstock would say, this is not a happy musical. Diane Goodman (Jolene Vettese), is a suburban housewife who, 16+ years after the death of her eight month-old son, remains consumed by grief, triggering an increasingly severe mental illness. Kitt and Yorkey give Diane a great deal of varied music. Her songs can be angry (“You Don’t Know”), full of longing (“I Miss the Mountains”), or reflective (“So Anyway”). Vettese’s best musical moment is in the lyrical “I Dreamed a Dance,” in which, cradling a baby blanket, she sings of the life she had imagined with her son. Particularly in her up-tempo numbers, unfortunately, Vettese suffers from chronic and distracting intonation problems. This malady may be inheritable, as Natalie, Diane’s daughter (Ashleigh Markin), likewise has noticeable pitch issues at times. Both sing their material passionately, however, and their songs convey their characters’ strong and often conflicted emotions.
In this production of the show, the central character often appears to be Gabe (Terrence Barr), the teenage manifestation of the Goodmans’ dead son. Barr’s Gabe is no blithe spirit. Darting in and out of scenes, with an almost spidery quickness and fluidity (Barr moves beautifully, it should be noted), Gabe makes one think of Puck on a particularly malevolent day. In his aggressive assertion of his reality (“I’m Alive”) and his openly Oedipal competition with Diane’s husband Dan (Harv Lester) for her soul (“I Am the One”), Gabe exudes a kind of demonic intensity, backed by a strong tenor voice. He actively undermines his mother’s attempts at mental health, encouraging her to dump her medications at one point, and leads her to attempt suicide (“There’s a World”). His take on the role suggests that Diane and Dan may be less in need of a psychiatrist than an exorcist.
There are in fact two psychiatrists in the play, the too-cutely named Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, both played by Eric Hughes, whose vocals are among the smoothest in the show. Director Andrew JM Regiec’s interpretation of both shrinks tends toward the satirical, with Fine being given a comic mitteleuropan accent and Madden a Dr. Oz-like telegenic suaveness. Hughes has a very funny, and well-lit, moment with Diana when she sees Madden a scary rock star.
Lester’s singing (in a considerably higher register than in his recent Sweeney Todd, in which he was also directed by Regiec) was the most consistently accurate in the cast. His Dan is the character who has to try to hold on, both to Diane and his own sense of hope (“It’s Gonna Be Good”); to try mightily to pry Diane away from her attachment to Gabe (“He’s Not Here”); and to try to persuade her to undergo one psychiatric treatment after another. Lester’s Dan is considerably more worn, prone to emotional breakdowns, and closer to defeat than in some interpretations of the character, an effect accentuated by his somewhat baggy, frumpy costuming. His final scene with Gabe plays less as a matter of acceptance and reconciliation than as his succumbing to Gabe’s inexorable force.
The most hopeful elements in the play are provided by Natalie and her boyfriend Henry (Miguel Lopez). Natalie is acutely aware that her mother has never noticed her, that her father is preoccupied with her mother’s illness, and that Gabe has the real power in the family (“Superboy and the Invisible Girl”). While she self-medicates with pot and pills and tries to push Henry away, she ultimately accepts Henry’s gentleness and sweetness, not in the spirit of romantic sentimentality but from a realization that, amidst the craziness and uncertainty of life, being close to someone dear matters (“I Will be Perfect for You” (reprise)). Lopez’s Henry, whose demeanor and voice are credible for his 17-year old character, is an uncommonly patient and understanding teenager. One of the interesting features of the play is that the men — Dan and Henry — are steadfast and nurturing, while the women — Diane and Natalie — are mercurial and self-focused.
Regiec’s multilevel set consists of platforms representing rooms and areas in the Goodmans’ house, connected by short staircases and overhung by a field of triangle cutouts, each of which has a hole cut into it. The holes are circular, except in the large center triangle, which has an irregularly shaped hole, perhaps representing Diane’s distressed fit in her world. A cyc, illuminated in various colors during the performance, backstops the set. Elisa Rosman’s seven-piece orchestra gives a good account of the show’s extensive and varied score, being kept in balance with the singers with the aid of strong sound reinforcement (which had the common directionality problem that, for example, left an actor’s voice hovering around center stage when the actor was exiting right).
One of the real strengths of Next to Normal is that it addresses terrifically difficult human problems — which handled less skillfully could lead to the moral equivalent of a Lifetime movie – with feeling but without sentimentality. In the capable hands of Kitt, Yorkey, and Regiec, survival and at least some tentative potential for hope following an almost overwhelming personal disaster can be powerful material for musical drama.
Love is funny, or it’s sad, Or it’s quiet, or it’s mad. It’s a good thing, or it’s bad, But beautiful… Love is tearful, or it’s gay, It’s a problem, or it’s play. It’s a heartache either way, But ‘But Beautiful’, Van Heusen/Burke.
Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010, and was nominated (sometimes winning) in just about every category of the 2009 Tony awards, including Best Musical, Book, Original Score, Orchestrations and Acting. It has been produced around the world garnishing similar honors. This year including a tour of the Broadway run, but not an earlier version performed at Arena stage in 2009. There has to be something to this show’s popularity.
The story revolves around a family dealing with illness and its impact on their lives and loves. Here it is a mental illness, specifically “bi-polar delusional depression” — although it’s really more of a conglomerate of neuroses and psychoses combined for dramatic convenience. Because, really, the diagnosis is irrelevant. It could be a physical ailment or disability. It could be some incident or event that left a scar. In our show we witness the struggles, conflicts, victories and upsets familiar to anyone who has had their lives jostled and slammed around as part of living with or living with someone with such an affliction — that which somehow consumes you and blocks you from having what you imagine to be a normal life.
But what is normal? Unwrap a ‘normal’ family and you will uncover all kinds of crazy. Then again, one’s setting of normal is skewed from the start — constrained by experience and exposure. And, as we see here, challenges to this challenge our entire belief system, our reality — which the psyche can be incredibly defensive of.
Next to Normal provides not only the perspective of the person in crisis, but of those around them — dealing with their loved one, the impacts of actions on them and of their reactions. It shows the never-ending, stopping and starting roller coaster life of this family from each member’s point of view, providing a rich background for us to explore that which gives us the strength to love and carry on day after day.
To me, the show is about love — the love between a mother & child, husband & wife, first love, love of the past and love for the future. It’s about the love which gets its strength from family — unconditional, heartbreaking, inspiring, dependable yet not. A love that encompasses all of the complexities from that unique yet universal thing we know as the family condition.
Photos provided by Reston Community Players
- Diana: Jolene Vettese
- Dan: Harv Lester
- Gabe: Terry Barr
- Natalie: Ashleigh Markin
- Henry: Miguel Lopez
- Doctors: Eric Hughes
- Producer: Daryl Hoffman
- Producer: Carol Watson
- Director: Andrew JM Regiec
- Assistant Director: Lee Slivka
- Music Director: Elisa Rosman
- Stage Manager: Eileen Mullee
- Assistant Stage Manager: David Holt
- Set Design: Andrew JM Regiec
- Master Carpenter: Tim Hinton
- Set Building Crew: Skip Larson, Sara Birkhead, Rich Bird, David Johnson, Tim Skjerseth, Cameron Kelly, Scott Birkhead
- Master Electrician: Ian Claar
- Lighting Designers: Ken and Patti Crowley
- Light Board Operator: Alex Lee
- Sound Designer: DJ Drummond
- Sound Board Operator: Micheal O’Connor, Rich Bird, Jason Willett
- Set Dressing: Mike Smith, Andrew JM Regiec
- Set Painting: Andrew JM Regiec, Cathy Reider, Eric Hughes
- Properties Acquisition: Mary Jo Ford
- Properties Mistress: Kathleen Kinsolving
- Hair & Makeup: Sue Pinkman
- Running Crew Chief: Sara Birkhead
- Running Crew: Tigan Harrison, Tim Hinton, Dave Johnson, Cameron Kelly, Cassie Sczymczyk
- Fly Crew: Laura Baughman
- Load-In Crew: Dave Johnson, Sara Birkhead, Tim Hinton, Laura
- Baughman, Skip Larson
- Special Production Assistant: Maggie Slivka
- Photography: Bernard Markowicz
- House Management: Daryl Hoffman
- Publicity: Lori Knickerbocker
- Showbill Production: Ginger Kohles, Sue Pinkman
Disclaimer: Reston Community Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. RCP also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio web site, which did not influence this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9225.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.