Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Natalie: “Thanks for all this sharing, no really, I'm all ears. But where has all this caring been for 16 years? For all those years I prayed that you'd go away for good... half the time afraid that you really would. When I thought you might be dying, I cried for all we'd never be, but there'll be no more crying for me.”
Rock was alive and rolling like thunder at Santa Ana’s Grand Central Art Center last Friday with The Wayward Artist’s latest emotional powerhouse, “Next to Normal.” No other show makes such a direct grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does.
This brave, breathtaking musical, directed by Craig Tyrl, with a run from April 12th through the 28th, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family rocked by tragedy, loss, illness, drug abuse, and suicide, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.
A specific emphasis on the loss of a child and the fight with mental illness is the central theme around the show. Heavy topics—Yes! But “Next to Normal” excels at being clear, easy to follow, and honest, and the cast and crew at The Wayward Artist knocked this one out of the park in every aspect of impactful theater.
Such emotional rigor is a point of honor for the creators and features a surging tidal score by Tom Kitt, and a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. With an astounding central performance from Rachel Oliveros Catalano as Diana Goodman, a housewife with worsening bipolar disorder, this production assesses the losses that occurs when wounded people are anesthetized — and not just by the battery of pharmaceutical and medical treatments to which Diana is subjected, but by recreational drugs, alcohol and that good old American virtue...denial with a smile.
The show opened in 2008 and was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning three: Best Original Score, Best Orchestration, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the eighth musical in history to receive that honor. Very much like "Spring Awakening," “Next To Normal” shakes up old forms. It’s the ultimate dysfunctional rock drama with a number of punchy anthems. The opening number, “Just Another Day,” is deceptively conventional. After quickie sex with her surprised husband Dan (Wyn Moreno), Diana attempts to send her teen children, Gabe (Kyle Goleman) and Natalie (Erica Schaeffer), off to school. Or so it seems.
But there’s a jangle in the song, even a hint of threat…and, for good reason. Diana’s bipolar manic-depression has kept her family off balance for years, and she has been relying steadily on drugs doled out by her doctors, Dr. Fine and Madden, both played with glib condescension by the excellent Jordan Schneider.
The show tracks Diana’s path as she slips off the rails after long periods of relative calm, prompting fresh assaults in an ongoing battle of trial-and-error psychopharmacological solutions. But as the smoky-voiced Ms. Catalano reflects in “I Miss the Mountains,”one of Kitt’s most affecting numbers, "ironing out the delusional highs and devastating lows can be an empty substitute for living." She shows how truly impossible it is to be everything to everyone while still trying to hold yourself together, and that the issues of mental illness are complicated and deserve a deeper focus. In this show, Ms. Catalano doesn’t just occupy the stage — she owns it.
Giving what promises to be the musical performance of the season, Ms. Catalano’s achingly exposed face and sweet, raw-tinged voice captures every glimmer in Diana’s kaleidoscope of feelings. Anger, yearning, sorrow, guilt, and the memory of what must have been love, seems to coexist in every note she sings. None of these are particularly comfortable emotions. In combination, they’re a dangerous cocktail. But to experience them vicariously is better than not being able to feel them at all. Diana is right when she sings, “you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.” Nor do musicals have to bubble with cheer to transport an audience as this one does. But, this show is less about connecting the dots than about life as a state of fragmentation.
In fact, the creators of “Next to Normal” realized they had something of authentic and original value beneath the formulaic flourishes, so they made the decision to toughen up and cast off the last traces of cuteness. This meant never releasing the audience from the captivity of its characters’ minds. That decision has transformed a small, stumbling musical curiosity into a work of muscular grace and power.
Mr. Yorkey’s lyrics are more likely to take the form of questions than answers. Mr. Kitt’s score — while sustaining the electric momentum of a rock opera — keeps shifting shapes, from dainty music-box lyricism to twanging country-western heartbreak, suggesting a restless, questing spectrum of moods. Not to belabor the point, but the songs are propelled by the same rock ’n’ roll jaggedness and vitality that animated Duncan Sheik’s score for “Spring Awakening,” a very similar musical about love and pain.
None of that would count for much, however, if the cast members didn’t convey the right amount of disconnectedness with the fluidity and intensity that they achieve here. And this stellar cast definitely has no weak link—an insanely talented group under the vibrant direction of Craig Tyrl.
Wyn Moreno (Dan), Diana’s husband, is the man that attempts to keep all the plates spinning. His struggle is so similar to Diana’s in that his world is slipping away from him despite his best efforts. Mr. Moreno shows us how alone we can be while trying to keep a family together. His desperation and frustration in palatable, especially in “Who’s Crazy.” Mr. Moreno is equally strong is his portrayal of an everyman-nice-guy. His appearance and solicitous behavior toward his wife play beautifully against his occasional impatience or his outbursts of righteous anger, making his journey no less moving than Diana’s. The character’s cheerful neutrality, which pervades even Mr. Moreno’s clear tenor, summons the evaporating spirit of a man who is slowly erasing himself.
Erica Schaeffer (Natalie) is the unsettled teenage daughter who seems perfect until you let her slip through the cracks through neglect. The notion that personality is fragile, always on the edge of decomposition, is exquisitely reflected in Ms. Schaeffer’s characterization of the astringent, poignant Natalie, a girl who lives in fear, both of being invisible to her mother, but also of turning into her.
Ms. Schaeffer is a true double-barreled shotgun when it comes to performance and vocals. Her attention to detail is amazing, I noticed that when her character played the piano, I could have sworn that her fingers were actually playing the notes, even though her prop was simply an air piano. Her own psychopharmacological anthem, “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl,” which brought out the rancor toward her older brother, was the musical number that I still can’t get out of my head, and her flawless execution of it is certainly the reason why.
Kyle Goleman (Gabe) seems as if he was born to play the part of Diana’s lost son, and is the main issue of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage. Mr. Goleman is both a delightful teenager and a twisted evil curse that has us completely torn between wanting him gone and wanting him back. As Gabe, Mr. Goleman gives a star-is-born turn singing, “I’m Alive,” in an electrifying embodiment of seductive despair. Mr. Goleman’s voice is a surprising strength in several of the musical numbers that he is featured in, including “I am the One,” “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl,” and “There’s a World.”
Often lurking in the shadows, Gabe is a bewitching, almost destructive force, a benevolent pusher who keeps Diana hooked on dangerous memories while conspiring in her most questionable decisions. As the teenage son who is both angel and demon to his mother, Mr. Goleman contrasts both as charismatic and ineffable as a figure in a dream, the kind who seems to have the solution to everything until you wake up.
Rod Bagheri (Henry) plays the eminently likable pothead that we don’t want our daughters to date until we really get to know how good he is to her. Henry is the outsider, whose journey into the family is both a welcome bit of sanity and a surprising parallel. His ability to portray integrity with a touch of innocence is the stuff great leading protagonists are made of. Mr. Bagheri’s musical strengths are well known instrumentally, in fact, he’s the Musical Director for this show, but I had no idea his singing abilities matched those strengths.
Jordan Schneider (Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden) reveals that the science of medicine is more of a trial and error system. His attempts to treat or free Diana from her burdens sheds an uncomfortable light on the lack of knowledge and precision that we have in the field of mental illnesses. Mr. Schneider brings very needed levity to several tough scenes via his rock star persona and his authentic bedside manner. His vocal ability is stunning and made me wish that he had additional songs.
Designers have contributed impressively. The set is a stroke of genius, thanks to Set Designer Daniel Espinoza. The stage is a snug fit for a thrush audience, with actors literally brushing you in many scenes, requiring a minimalist set design that evokes a complete atmosphere for the narrative. The set is made up of white, wrap-around, tri-sectioned modulars that requires a bit of your imagination, but for the most part, succinctly depicts an ordinary suburban home, functioning as living room, bathroom, kitchen, with a doorway that supposedly leads to bedrooms, etc. In addition, three attached flatscreens add subliminal support images to the audience, enhanced by Kristin Campbell, echoing the images and questions that are raised throughout the production.
Melissa Alvarez (Costume Designer) enhances the passing of time and circumstance with a liberal, modern wardrobe that allows the characters to look like real people while also hinting at the changes that are taking place within them. This includes realistic medical gowns and clothing during the doctor and hospital visits. We see the characters appearances slowly getting darker while attempting to look normal. This type of attention to detail and meticulous planning helps me to understand why it takes my wife multiple attempts in getting dressed before we can eventually leave the house.
Vanessa Cortez serves as assistant to Director Tyrl, and Associate Artistic Director is Sarah Ripper. The Choreographer is Natalie Baldwin. The Audio Sound Design by Lauren Zuiderveld provided clear dialogue and a powerful musical interface. Chris Henrriquez’ dynamic lighting packs its own adrenaline charge, bathing the stage in dazzling blues, purples and reds or chilling whites, color tones that amplified the emotions being displayed on stage.
Prop Masters, Nicole Sue Ross and Kiran Gonse maintained a steady hand in keeping property coordinated. Analisa Peters handled all things Technical; Stage Manager is Sydney Fitzgerald, with assistance also from Nicole Sue Ross and Kiran Gonse. The production’s intern is Brent Williams.
“Next to Normal” is not always pleasant. But the cast rises to the challenge of the difficult topic, complicated musical arrangements and tricky vocal harmonies of Kitt and Yorkey’s score. The Goodman family story doesn’t end on the most uplifting of notes, nor are all its loose ends tied up. But “Next to Normal” does leave us with a glimmer of optimism. And sometimes, as in real life, that’s the most we can hope for.
Beginning with tonight’s College Night Talk Back show at 7:30pm, “Next to Normal” continues Friday, April 19th at 7:30, Saturday, April 20th at 2pm and once again at 7:30pm, then the following weekend beginning Thursday, April 25th at 7:30pm, Friday, April 26th at 7:30pm, and Saturday, April 27th at 2pm and once again at 7:30pm with a Youth/Family Talk Back. The final show is Sunday, April 28th at 2pm. Tickets may be purchased online at: http://www.thewaywardartist.org/buy-tickets-4567
This show is Ultra Recommended!