It’s just another day, and it’s gonna be good at Silhouette Stages as they live life on a latte and a prayer while getting Next to Normal underway as their final production of the 2015/2016 theatrical season. Featuring the Pulitzer prize-winning Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey and Music by Tom Kitt, this emotionally evocative rock musical has a brilliant score, sensational songs, and a visual concept delivered through projection that drives home the emotional connections of the show’s overarching themes with stunning clarity. Directed by Steven Fleming with Musical Direction by Scott AuCoin, there are several performances that will shake theatergoers to their core, and beg the question, “who’s crazy?”
The most sensational element of the performance comes from the mind of Projection Designer and Director Steven Fleming. The framework concept that Fleming has conceived here is a powerful one and packs loaded emotional punches to the heart and soul consistently throughout the performance. Projected behind the main play space is the silhouette of a brain and throughout the show, a blend of various images— synapsis firing, lights exploding, active memory— move within the brain to coincide with emotional releases on stage. Fleming’s juxtaposition of these moments are startling, particularly when the images of Gabe as a baby and Gabe at his present age flicker in rapid succession against one another. These projections allow the audience to see the inner workings of Diana’s mind and experience the story through her eyes, quite literally. This concept is amazing and grounds the show with emotional integrity.
That said, it is unfortunate that a great deal of the emotional charge throughout the show’s musical numbers comes from the projection design work rather than the performances on stage. Fleming’s casting decisions of both Diana (Susan Schindler) and Dan (Jeremy Goldman) are questionable as Schindler is not vocally suited for the character of Diana and Goldman ends up looking far too young to be the husband of Diana and father of Natalie or Gabe. Schindler does have moments of vocal energy that rage through various musical numbers, however she’s blown out in the upper range of the songs and often ends up dropping into a lower range that is more suited for her singing abilities but out of tune with the way the music has been written. Goldman’s delivery of Dan, while vocally pristine and perfectly suited for the character’s range, is emotionally vacant in an unintentionally aloof manner that feels hollow rather than intentionally distanced. Goldman does, to his credit, have wonderful little moments of expressive facial activity that help to parlay his feelings in certain songs and scenes.
Set Designer Alex Porter crafts the two-tiered platforms to create the upper story of the household with carefully articulated nooks below to serve as the kitchen, the Doctor’s office and various other scenic areas while still allowing for the best view of the magnificent projections. Porter’s spatial arrangement of the furnishings, however, is cramped and confines the Fleming’s blocking, which makes movement on the whole look unnatural. This does not, thankfully, effect the show’s overall pacing, but does make it difficult for Choreographer Jenni Frederick to do anything at all with the show’s light smattering of opportunities for movement and dance.
The show on the whole lacks the urgent rocker drive that accompanies the edgy subject matter and score. Musical Director Scott AuCoin puts the live orchestra on stage, which is a nice touch, however, he fails to deliver the volume and zesty verve that the music requires. This may be a balancing issue to keep from overplaying and blowing out the vocal performers but it does little to entreat the audience to the show’s full potential. The lack of lighting on the whole is another element whose absence is felt, though Lighting Designer Samuel Andrews does find unique ways to infuse color into certain musical numbers, like under-lighting Diana in red for “Do You Know.”
Fleming’s overall approach to the show feels lacking. Rather than wholeheartedly embracing the vital themes of mental illness and the impact that it has on the characters, Fleming shies away from the nature of the show in favor of the music and staging. These would be acceptable choices if the overall blocking of the show wasn’t cramped and the show’s lead performer were more vocally and emotionally suited for the main role. Fleming’s focus falls heavily on the projections, which again are impressively striking, but are not enough to carry the show without further vision. The show lacks a through-line of emotional compassion and connectivity in Fleming’s hands but individual performances from the supporting cast make up for this blunder.
First as Doctor Fine and later as Doctor Madden, David Woodward delivers an enormous surge of vocal power as the latter of the two characters when he rocks the character introduction. His vocal clarity is superb, though his solo moments of song are limited. “Make Up Your Mind” and its reprise as well as the snippets in which Woodward is featured for “Seconds and Years” are all prime examples of his vocal talents.
Henry (Michael Nugent) and Natalie (Christie Smith) are the show’s driving forces alongside the vocally sensational Gabe (Danny Bertaux.) There is something quirky yet convivial in Nugent’s portrayal of Henry. Not quite the off-beat stoner that one expects from the character, and deeply laced with a sense of devoted compassion for Natalie, Nugent makes the character of Henry a lively and active component of the musical. His voice carries not only a solid sense of tonality and well-placed pitch, but a keen sense of how to emotionally connect to the maelstrom of feelings swirling around him. “Perfect For You” is a glorious duet with a marvelous swell of pathos that entwines Nugent’s voice with Smith’s, one of just several examples to how perfectly they are matched as performers in this production. “Hey” in all of its incarnations is another stellar example of the way Nugent’s voice radiates with pulses of emotional energy.
Christie Smith is the emotional electricity of the show, zapping each of her songs to shocking life with the ferocious commitment and connection that she grounds into the character. Showcasing a striking variety of angst, anguish, anger, and a good dozen other harshly caustic feelings, Smith rages with resilience, belts with vitality, and delivers a vocal quality that is the epitome of what Natalie’s character calls for. “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is a stellar duet shared with Gabe where both of their voices achieve perfection in the harmonies of the song. Her sustainable belts are nothing short of astonishing and draw the audience into her side of the trauma so that one some level a catharsis from the show overall can be achieved by those watching.
Bertaux is well set against Smith and Nugent (though Nugent and he have no direct interactions of vocal crosses) and brings an incredible life force to the character of Gabe. Where Smith creates Natalie to be vocally balanced, nimble, and crystalline clear, Bertaux is flaming fire and destructive desire every time he blasts into a number. “I’m Alive” is the conflagration of the first act, blazing away with emotional honesty and a voice fully equipped to support it. Sharing “I Am the One” and “I Am the One (Reprise)” with Jeremy Goldman, Bertaux goes head to head in an emotional battle of gladiatorial proportions, wherein the latter of the two numbers is Goldman’s shining moment to really unearth a connection to the character.
Bertaux, Smith, and Nugent carry the show on their shoulders and make the audience aware of the emotional impact of mental illness, and entice the audience to take the journey with them. The show itself is moving and the projections are intellectually and emotionally stimulating; a ticket is worth procuring for these reasons this spring.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Next to Normal plays through May 22, 2016 at Silhouette Stages in the Slayton House Theater of Wilde Lake Village Center— 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 637-5289 or purchase them online.