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Review: The Encore's enthralling 'Next to Normal' leaves a big impact

 Courtesy of The Encore Musical Theatre Company 


It’s refreshing to see that Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Next to Normal” is enjoying a bit of a resurgence. While the show has never truly disappeared from the limelight since its successful Broadway run ending in 2011, over the last few years theatre companies across the country are embracing this powerful and controversal piece of theatre. “Next to Normal” tackles heavy themes of adolescent anxiety, bipolar disorder, and the ethics behind psychiatric treatments- not the type of feel good elements that typically sell to communities accustomed to their local theaters performing show-stopping classics.

But recently, and I would attribute this to the increasingly progressive nature of contemporary audiences, “Next to Normal” has been embraced more than ever, despite its content, because folks are seeing the bigger picture. And what better landscape to produce the show than the intimacy of The Encore Musical Theatre Company, where audiences are fully engulfed in the message this beautiful show relays.

The Encore has staged an enthralling and triumphant production of “Next to Normal” – one of, if not, the best version I’ve seen, complete with a knockout cast of new and familiar faces to the space. Under the keen eye of Matthew Brennen (who directed 2017’s sensational “Sweeney Todd”), and the solid musical direction of Leah Fox, who conducts Kitt’s daunting score with ease and clarity, “Next to Normal” soars to genius lengths surrounded by a brilliant design. It would have been enough had the cast and crew merely staged what was on the page, but this is a nearly perfect iteration that would make an instant fan of anyone seeing the production for the first time.

The jaw dropping moments start with Jeremy Barnett’s scenic design, as The Encore’s set allows for more intimacy between the characters and the audience. I’ve seen versions of “Next to Normal” that are big and flashy, yet none of them have done Yorkey and Kitt’s text justice as much as the nuance of this production. If “Sweeney Todd” or “West Side Story” proved anything, it is that The Encore’s quaint 100 seat black-box style venue can adapt to the demands (big or small) surrounding a narrative. So, it’s exciting when a show like “Next to Normal,” whose rock-opera format lends itself to bigger venues, lands on their stage; and it has been crafted to play perfectly on this more intimate scale.

Following the lives of the dysfunctional Goodman family navigating an influx of emotional hardship, the plot details the lives of Diana, Natalie, and Dan who seem like the normal happy-go-lucky suburban family- until you realize there’s more to unearth. Courtney Riddle shines as Diana, a manic-depressive suburban mom who suffers from delusions and disorientations surrounding a traumatic event from her past. Dan (Ron Williams - terrific) her husband, tries to piece together a semblance of normalcy for their daughter Natalie (the outstanding Elisabeth Garber) - meanwhile Diana can never seem to find the line between reality and fiction.

That’s a tough line to draw in the sand, but Kitt’s libretto that includes noteworthy songs like “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” that wonderfully expands Natalie’s arch in the narrative (which Garber crushes) - and “I Miss the Mountains,” which, powered by Riddle’s impressive vocals feels like the perfect marriage of the character to the actress, help to demonstrate the complexity of these characters. Riddle is the basis for much of the production’s emotional infrastructure and turns in an astonishingly real performance.

The same applies to David Moan as the somber Dr. Madden, a mild character who diagnoses Diana’s condition early on, and eventually introduces her to radical measures to help get her life back on track; (in one scene Diana envisions Madden as a radical rockstar, allowing Moan to belt out some high-pitched money notes that’ll be a treat for audiences). Being an Encore regular, Moan always seems to nail each performance regardless of the scope. He brings the same type of effort and dedication to a supporting role like Dr. Madden, the same way he did playing the titular Sweeney Todd or Edward Bloom in “Big Fish.”

Ron Williams puts a unique spin and characterization on Dan, the fatherly-figure struggling to steer the course of Diana’s off-the-wall antics. Belting out the heartbreaking crusade “I Am the One,” which he sings beautifully with co-stars Riddle and Mat Pecek, Williams presents a strong, yet empathetic front. Speaking of Pecek, he elevates Gabe, a role that requires great velocity and agility, to new heights, as he tackles the role with a youthful attitude (despite the actor seeming older than the character he’s playing). Songs like “Aftershocks” and “I’m Alive” swell under Pecek’s cannon, who, like Williams, has the right touch of energy and the production benefits from it.

Which brings us to Isaac A. Orr’s portrayal of Henry, a character that, in my opinion, gets the short end of the leash narratively and Orr seems to mold him into a rhythm as the show progresses, finding plenty to do with his role as the lover boy who falls hard for Natalie (and may or may not be a good influence on her). Henry and Natalie’s relationship stands out beautifully in the show, as it is one aspect of Yorkey’s script that eventually makes us feel warm and fuzzy; and the chemistry between Garber and Orr helps to plow through some of the underdeveloped mechanics of that storyline.

Considering there’s only six principal actors throughout the show, you’d assume things would be less stressful behind the scenes, but everything from the scenic crew to Sharon Urick’s consistent and reliable costuming feel like a seventh cast member standing in the wings. I was constantly impressed by the creative solutions this crew was able to overcome; like how the show is memorably done in a gigantic two story house, and here Brennan finds quietly effective methods and levels in his staging (like Gabe’s constant roving in the song “There’s A World.") Combined with Jason Maracani’s lighting design, the show keeps a constant flow of movement amongst the scenery and setting. There’s no big sign that says we’re at a specific location - (we move from a scene inside the house, to a scene at school almost instantly) - but Brennan and Maracani’s full throttle approach never hinders the action.

Finally, as mentioned, “Next to Normal” tackles serious issues that could be a trigger for those who’ve suffered from traumatic events like those depicted in the show, but The Encore has taken the initiative of providing talkbacks with local healthcare professionals after certain performances and having onsite guides to relieve any concerns stemming from the performance. By offering this soothing gesture of goodwill that continues the moral of what the show is professing The Encore leaves audiences with a welcomed message: it’s okay to seek help, and it’s okay to have the conversation. For being a small theatre, The Encore’s current production sure leaves a big impact. 

The Encore Musical Theatre's production of "Next To Normal" continues through Feb 24th. To purchase tickets you can call (734-268-6200) or click here to visit The Encore's website and get them online, 

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