Photo courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
You probably won’t find a show making a tug for the heartstrings the way “Next To Normal” does. New to the Croswell Opera House, this bold musical presents a welcome change of pace for the popular Michigan staple. While recent crowd pleasers like “Mamma Mia!” and “Barnum” most certainly evoke their own purpose, this helps thought provoking shows like “Normal” stand out just a touch more.
While it isn’t the feel good family musical of the year, it progresses a conversation that needs to be heard, and grabs your emotions in all the best ways. The musical paints a picture of a dysfunctional family that strives for some decency and peace in their daily lives; or, at least, that’s the goal. Doubling as the shows costume designer, lead actress Natalie Kissinger tackles the role of the manic depressive Diana, a housewife diagnosed with bipolar disorder struggling to deal with her past trauma, with impressive gusto. The show's emotional gravitas presents itself in stylish ways under the stern direction of Douglas Miller (who also provided the polished scenic design that’s complete with a slew of crafty projections).
Miller utilizes his small cast to yield some effective results. Aside from Diana, the family ensemble consists of loving fatherly figure and husband Dan (played as such by Croswell newcomer Joe Nolan); troubled daughter Natalie (Emily Courcy conveying just the right spunk of quirkiness required for the role); and her likable stoner boyfriend Henry (Jonathan Stelzer channeling his inner teenager exceptionally). They all seem to be stuck in constant motion searching for the proper balance, which is reflected in Miller’s staging. A steady entanglement of proportions that layers themes around pharmaceutical drugs and mental health, familial relationships, and even electroshock therapy.
While past Croswell productions have shared similarly weighted ideas, "Next to Normal" is unique in the sense that its plot doesn't just discuss these themes, but rather these themes are the plots driving center. But this cast - which Miller and company have plucked from all walks of life, including Wisconsin - seem to reel in the material and offer their own creative spin. Kissinger in particular grounds Diana in captivating ways as a woman caught between two arcs: the "real" world and her own reality that stems from her chronic illness. Kissinger belts Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's driving songs like "You Don’t Know” from the heart; her compatriots Nolan and Courcy follow suit, putting forth solid efforts on all fronts, vocally and physically.
I can’t neglect the other stellar performances from Dominic Seipenko - whose role I’ll choose to keep a secret, as much of “Next To Normal” benefits from the realizations and tribulations Diana must undergo - and Andrew Buckshaw who amazes as a Doctor tasked with figuring out how to cure someone that, perhaps, doesn't want to be. Buckshaw can hit those high notes, and - with music director Dave Raines handling the small five-piece orchestra - the score's impressive rock ballads all land accordingly.
I struggle to dive into more detail as a description of what transpires won’t do justice to the live material. But you should know that Kitt and Yorkey’s vigorous musical numbers - (among them: “I am the One,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” and “I’m Alive”) - are likely to jive on multiple levels;,sustaining an electric melody that puts it up with the best Broadway rock operas. While some of the lyrics may present more questions than answers to both character and audience, the impressively formulated spectrum of emotions swayed from this score soothed this critic gently; they also just sound great in The Croswell’s space.
To be sure, there’s no neat description for Diana’s condition, however, “Next To Normal” gives weight to the confusion this close knit family is begging for. None of this is taken lightly, and I’d argue that each technical member embarked on the process with great care (and research) in hand. Specifically in Tiff Crutchfield’s terrific lighting design which amplifies the backdrop with bountiful colors, and Kissinger’s glossy palette of normal, everyday, clothing; the impact of which takes some time to grow on you.
As a whole, “Next To Normal” is one reflection piece that isn’t so far removed from those of the tier of dysfunctional families you’ll see on television. Granted, there's the usual cadence of dramatization that elevates certain scenes which could otherwise drag in comparison, yet The Croswell has dutifully handled this musical with care and integrity.
In the wrong hands, “Next To Normal” can be an endurance test of your own sanity, but when tackled correctly, the impact is felt long after the curtains close, and begs the discussion of just what it is we consider normal.
IF YOU GO:
Next To Normal continues through October 29th at The Croswell. To purchase tickets and to find out more info visit Croswell.org