There is certainly nothing normal about the Arts Club’s season opener. But then there is nothing normal about Next To Normal, the rock beat anti-musical which explores a ghostly world of mental illness and a family’s struggle with love and loss.
Winner of three Tony Awards in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010, Next To Normal tells the story of wife and mother Diana’s struggle with a bipolar disorder and the effect that it has on her relationship with her family. On a downward spiral for 16 years, Diana’s medicine cabinet has seen every psycho-pharmaceutical ever invented. As she tries to deal with her illness, the impact on her life and that of her family is at times both lives threatening and heartbreaking.
Catriona Murphy as Diana is spot-on as the woman spiraling out of control to the point where she sees little escape except in an almost deadly decision. In “I Miss the Mountains” we feel every bit of that lost control and as she finds herself pulled between husband Dan (Warren Kimmel) and son Gabe (Eric Morin) in “I Am The One”, the conflict within her mind is laid wide open.
Husband Dan is a rock. His desire to help keep his family together is heartfelt and Warren Kimmel gives him a wonderfully pervasive hope. In a uniformly talented cast, Morin stands out as son Gabe. Not only does he easily manage Tom Kitt’s tough music – his renditions of “I’m Alive” are goose-bump enducing – but also finds a perfect balance between his need to be remembered and a love for his parents. As Gabe and Dad finally reconcile in a reprise of “I Am The One” late in act two, the openness of the two actors was enough to open a flood gate of tears for me.
Both Jennie Neumann and Matt Palmer return to the Stanley stage having just closed Hairspray, the final production of the Arts Club’s last season. From the wide-eyed optimism of Tracy Turnblad to the neglected daughter Natalie in Next To Normal, Neumann not only proves her range as an actor but also as a singer, attacking Kitt’s music with skill and conviction. Palmer moves from the cheese of Corny Collins in Hairspray to the doctors trying to treat Diana and he too proves his versatility. Rounding out the cast is Colin Sheen as Natalie’s stoner boyfriend Henry, who surprisingly becomes a beacon of hope for the daughter who worries she is cursed to live the life of her mother.
Bruce Kellett also returns for another Arts Club production, this time as co-musical director along with Ken Cormier, pulling amazing vocal performances from this small cast. Cormier also leads the small six piece band which fills the Stanley Theatre with the huge sound required. Sound designer Andrew Tugwell has worked magic to ensure every note is heard both from the actors and the band and Ted Roberts has designed a simple set that gives director Bill Millerd two levels in which to move his actors.
Not since those kids from New York’s Lower East Side struggled to survive under the spectre of HIV/AIDS has musical theatre brought the gritty realities of life to the stage in such a compelling way. With an ensemble cast worthy of any Broadway stage, this Arts Club production is a powerful opener to its new season.
Music by Tom Kitt. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. An Arts Club Theatre Company presentation. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre through October 9, 2011. Visit http://www.artsclub.com for tickets and information.