Seven years ago, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey explored the devastating cost of mental illness in their Tony-winning Broadway debut of Next to Normal. Now Keegan Theatre is bringing the gripping psychological saga of Diana and her struggling family to DC, pinning local audiences to their seats with wrenching emotion and dark humor.
Next to Normal follows Diana, a suburban housewife with crippling bipolar disorder, as well as her weary husband Dan, her laid-back son Gabe, and her Type-A daughter Natalie. Following a traumatic mental break sixteen years ago, Diana has followed the same routine: therapy, pills, relapse, therapy, pills, relapse. After years of strain, the family is barely hanging by a thread. A particularly alarming episode prompts the charismatic Doctor Madden proposes a last-ditch therapy for Diana, prompting some agonizing soul searching and tearful acquiescence.
Following the procedure, calm finally returns to the house – albeit not exactly how the family hoped. Dan and Natalie hopefully pick up the pieces and work toward a long-awaited sense of normalcy. Meanwhile, a nagging thread somewhere in Diana’s mind begs to be pulled, until a long forgotten memory upsets her delicate equilibrium. Best intentions collide with cold reality as the show spirals toward its emotional conclusion.
Kari Ginsburg handles the immense challenge that is Diana with veteran poise and a powerful soprano. She narrates Diana’s draining road to recovery with the tired humor and weary resignation of someone who’s really been there. Ginsburg pulls off jarring emotional 180s with unnerving realism – all wild eyes and manic scrambling. Following one very frustrating setback, she unleashes an arresting cocktail of outrage and dread, like a deer in the headlights – totally aware of oncoming disaster, yet unable to step out of the way. And Ginsburg’s touching chemistry with co-star Chad Wheeler provides the show with a compelling emotional anchor point.
As long-suffering husband Dan, Wheeler holds his own next to Ginsburg with a bravura turn. He’s at his best in the quiet moments between Diana’s outbursts, as he desperately tries to piece his life and family back together. Wheeler channels pent-up frustrations, sorrow, and hope through a versatile baritone and soulful eyes. Late in the show, he leaves not a single eye dry with his moving father-son reprise of “I Am the One” accompanied by the magnetic David Landstrom.
Landstrom, in turn, brings a puckish charm to the role of Gabe, flitting in and out of scenes to pull on the family’s emotional strings. He shows off his rock-edged tenor in several angsty renditions of “I’m Alive”. But he’s capable of delicate emotion as well, as shown in his tearful, falsetto-laden closing duet with Wheeler. On the other side of the equation, Scott Ward Abernathy’s soothing Doctor Madden struggles to bring a sense of zen-like calm to Diana and the family and counteract Gabe’s disruptive influence. Abernathy also shows his versatility through his dual role as the no nonsense Doctor Fine, whose bedside manner is on par with a mortician.
Next to Normal
closes July 10, 2016
Details and tickets
As overachiever Natalie, Caroline Dubberly unleashes a thrilling pop soprano and surprising classical piano chops. Dubberly’s dramatic range carries her convincingly from neurotic straight-A student to strung out party girl and back again, all underpinned by a deep-set longing for acceptance. Christian Montgomery plays her love interest Henry, a likeable jazz player and stoner who counterbalances Natalie’s relentless drive and uptight manner. Montgomery’s warm tenor, dogged loyalty, and laidback charm cut through the gloom following the struggling family.
Kitt and Yorkey’s soundtrack is no walk in the park, employing shifting time signatures, Sondheim-esque overlapping melodies, and disorienting parallel harmonies reminiscent of progressive rock legends YES. Music director Jake Null ably handles the challenge with his skeleton music crew. Scenic Designer Matthew Keenan’s constellation of jagged panels, broken doors, and fractured walls is an initially puzzling yet subtly brilliant nod toward Diana’s shattered psyche. Projection designer G. Ryan Smith and lighting designer Allan Sean Weeks work in tandem to transport the audience between Diana’s home and troubled mind, shifting from office fluorescents to moody moonlight to a literal thunderstorm inside Diana’s brain.
Directors Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith and their cast have honored Kitt and Yorkey’s revelatory work with an unforgettable production. Next to Normal will leave you sobered, shattered, and grateful for the gift of family – in whatever expected or unexpected form it may take.
Next to Normal . Music by Tom Kitt . Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey . Directed by Mark A Rhea and Colin Smith . Music Directed by Jake Null . Featuring Kari Ginsburg, Chad Wheeler, David Landstrom, Caroline Dubberly, Christian Montgomery, and Scott Ward Abernathy . Assistant Directed by Christina A Coakley . Choreographed by Kurt Boehm . Sound Design by Rachel Barlaam . Costume Design by Alison Johnson . Scenic Design by Matthew Keenan . Hair and Makeup by Craig Miller . Projection Design by G. Ryan Smith . Lighting Design by Allan Sean Weeks . Set Dressing and Prop Design by Carol H. Baker . Produced by The Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Ben Demers .