Next to Normal Rocks the SpeakEasy Stage

normal_hi_4.jpgBy Jordan Moncada–3/26/2012
This musical is anything but normal. The Boston premiere of the rock musical Next to Normal was brought to the SpeakEasy Stage Company. Next to Normal takes you into the life of an ordinary suburban family dealing the extraordinary effects of a mother’s mental illness.
Mental illness may not be the subject of choice for a musical. But composer Tom Kitt (American Idiot) and bookwriter/lyricist Brian Yorkey (Making Tracks) take a heavy topic and treat it with care. The pop rock score tells the intense and emotional story of how a family comes to terms with its past and faces its future. Kitt and Yorkey won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama along with three Tony Awards. Next to Normal features over 35 songs and very little dialogue.
The small 6-member cast works extremely well together to depict realistically this struggling family. The musical scores are anything but simple with multiple six-part harmonies. But the performers and musicians manage to pull off almost every number throughout the musical journey.
Kerry A. Dowling plays Diana Goodman, a bipolar mother trying to let go of her traumatic past. But the combinations of her prescription cocktail and extreme depression keep Diana from maintaining a normal lifestyle. Dowling is successful in capturing the spectrum of Diana’s everyday life. Dowling’s interpretation of Diana’s insanity and return to reality captivated the audience. However, Dowling’s classically trained soprano did not work well with the pop-rock score. In the song “Didn’t I See This Movie?” Dowling attempts to belt out lyrics, but she more or less screams them instead. Her voice did excel in quieter ballads like “I Miss The Mountains.”
The rest of the show is well cast. Boston Conservatory musical theater student Sarah Drake stands out as the quirky, attention-starved daughter Natalie. Drake had the best vocals and gave a flawless performance. Her on-stage stoner boyfriend Henry was played by Northeastern University graduate Michael Levesque. The chemistry between Drake and Levesque was put on display during the song “Hey” and its multiple reprises. Christopher Chew plays Diana’s loving husband Dan Goodman. Chew’s baritone vocals perfectly fit the Next to Normal musical score.
SpeakEasy Stage Company took the Broadway musical and transformed it into an intimate production in the Roberts Studio Theater in Boston’s South End. The audience was able to capture every performer’s emotion from the moment the show began. The set consisted of white panels that allowed lights to project onto the set. The projections of a wall paper design tell the audience members they are in the family’s kitchen and the projections of lockers tell the audience that they are at Natalie’s high school. The projections and lighting also explain the mood of the mother Diana. The chaos projected on the panels takes the audience inside Diana’s head.
Next to Normal is a unique and original show. It sheds light on a subject that is not often talked about but affects many families. SpeakEasy Stage Company did an excellent job of bringing this Broadway show to the city of Boston. Next to Normal is extending its run at the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion until April 22nd.