Life is insane but crazy can be done. Crazy is oft the norm when normal can’t be found. Centerstage is taking crazy to the next level with their fall production of the Tony and Pulitzer Award-Winning musical Next to Normal. The emotionally poignant musical is a groundbreaking work that infusing real life dysfunction into musical theatre in a jarring but exhilarating fashion. With music by Tom Kitt and Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the fun in dysfunction is spun on its axis and shocks the heart with a jolt of emotional upheaval. Directed by David Schweizer with Musical Direction by Darren Cohen, the production is inspiring with haunting music that will linger long after the final bow.
The grandeur of Set Designer Caleb Wertenbaker’s work builds up expectations for the performance. True to the story, Wertenbaker constructs a two-tiered set that allows for multi-function scene play throughout the production. The stark whiteness of the sets structural supports serves a two-fold meaning for the characters as the main themes wend themselves into the set design. It’s Wertenbaker’s cube at the top left of the stage that is truly scenic genius; serving as a performance space that is symbolically brilliant. A part of but not fully attached to the main set, much like the delusional experiences of Diana, the cube becomes a play space for the blurred lines of reality and fantasy to meet; a playground of delirium that serves the show in both a symbolic and functional manner.
Adding Wertenbaker’s impressive set are the images created by Projection Designer Driscoll Otto. Allowing for fluid ease in scene shifts, four projection screens that encompass the corners of the stage are tucked neatly away almost seamlessly between support posts. This allows for a quick transition from the house interior to school, or the doctor’s office to outside; the possibilities become endless and the quality of the projections are lifelike and sharply realistic. That said, there are times when Otto’s use of projections become superfluous on the edge of feeling contrived; trying too hard to create atmosphere for the sake of something to wow the audience as an underscore to the happenings of the moment in the song or scene. This happens mostly when non-scenic landscapes are being projected, though the snow-fall and shadowy silhouettes at the end of “There’s a World” are truly striking.
The elaborate set with intricate projections on the whole overwhelms the talent of the cast. When the set and technical spectacle, such as the intense, albeit appropriate, light show from Lighting Designer Aaron Black becomes an intense point of focus the actors and their performances get swept away in the waves of creativity. Musical Director Darren Cohen is unsuccessful in countering this effect as not only do the performances often get washed out in spectacle, but the vocal volume gets drowned out by the powerful orchestra. Balance, particularly for a musical such as this where the rock vibes are strong and the score is striking mighty emotional blows, is essential for keeping the audience engaged in the story.
Dancing seems almost out of place in this musical but Choreographer Dan Knechtges infiltrates the musical numbers like a movement ninja; sliding little hints of dance into the songs in such a subtle fashion that much like the symptoms of Diana’s illness you don’t even realize until it’s too late and they’re already there. Utilizing Wertenbaker’s cube, Knechtges creates a series of psychotic dances, particularly during “My Psychopharmacologist and I” and “Wish I Were Here” that are both intriguing and disturbing to behold. But it’s the stifled ballet outbreak that spreads like a contagion throughout the company for “Catch Me I’m Falling” that is visually harrowing; the layers of emotional meaning wrapped up into that simple series of gestures truly blinding.
The strongest of performances were delivered surprisingly from the supporting characters in the production. Matt Lutz, playing first as the nasally and nerdy Dr. Fine and later as the ‘rock star’ Dr. Madden, delivers phenomenal vocal quality and control for the handful of songs he is given to sing. “Make Up Your Mind” is a divine moment where his crystal clear voice and pitch-perfect range resonates through the space and into the hearts of the audience; a voice of reasonable clarity amid the fogs of insanity. His raging rock star introduction alone is pure entertainment with a blast of powerful sound that puts his performance a step above the standard that has been set in this performance.
Henry (Matthew Rodin) is another minor character that delivers an amazing impact to the performance despite his limited musical numbers. Rodin, like Lutz, has surprising vocal control and delivers pitch perfection every time he sings. His strong clear sustains at the end of numbers like “Hey” (and its reprises) and “Perfect For You” are imbued with honest emotion and a real understanding of existing as a human on stage rather than a caricature of emotions.
Henry’s disturbing girlfriend Natalie (Kally Duling) does make a solid harmony with him once during the show for “Perfect for You (Reprise).” Duling struggles throughout the performance to stay in tune, many of her notes wavering flat and off-key. The higher notes of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” are out of her range and she delivers the song in a clipped fashion without the sustained notes in many of the places where they are written. Duling’s approach to the character, under Schweizer’s direction, leaves her feeling static and one-dimensional: an angst-ridden caricature of the confused and disturbed teenage guilt child. To her credit, Duling does manage to emote expressively with her face even if at times the emotions feel forced.
Dan (Michael Winther) and Diana (Ariela Morgenstern) share equal and opposing struggles throughout the performance. Winther, who is often railing with emotional confusion and distortion for numbers like “He’s Not Here” and “I Am the One,” gets unfortunately washed away by the overpowering orchestra. Whereas Morgenstern is belting at the top of her vocal ability and can be heard without issue, her emotional connection to the character is virtually non-existent. Winther’s performance on the whole at first seems lacking, but on closing inspection is simply internalized, building emotional momentum for his phenomenal rendition of “I Am the One (Reprise.)”
Technically flawless when it comes to hitting notes, blending harmonies, and sustaining sounds, Morgenstern’s performance is unfortunately otherwise unbalanced and lackluster. While the character is disconnected mentally and emotionally there has to be some level of connection with all of the disconnection in order for the audience to accept her story and be moved by it. Schweizer’s direction pulls her out of these moments entirely and leaves a beautiful sound with no feeling behind it. “I Miss the Mountains” has a delightful sound with no heart in it, and eve “I Dreamed a Dance” is dulcetly divine but lacks soul. Nearing the end of the production, Morgenstern does break free from her disconnect and delivers a stunning rendition of “So Anyway,” the first time her emotions are in sync with the song she’s singing.
The pivotal character in this production is Gabe (Justin Scott Brown.) Defying the restrictions of his character’s existence, Brown’s presence upon the stage resonates soundly throughout the story. With an exceptionally stunning voice and emotional explosivity that shakes the soul, his performance is second to none. From his sensational ability to find harmony and blend for “Just Another Day” to the haunting accents he provides for “I Am the One,” Brown’s voice is a godsend to the show. Carrying the end of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” and other numbers where he is the second half of a duet, the raw emotional connection he brings to the stage is astounding. Versatile and exceptionally talented, Brown’s rendition of both “I’m Alive” and “There’s a World” are moving beyond compare. Brown makes the show what it should be; an emotional catharsis of craziness and reality that never quite meet on the same page; he brings the tears, he tells the story.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission