Intense doesn’t even come close to describing the level of emotion experienced by this writer while viewing “Next to Normal,” Wednesday. The Tony and Pulitzer Prize–winning musical opened Jan. 30 and continues through Feb. 24 at the Phoenix Theatre, located in the arts district in downtown Indianapolis.
A rock musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, “Next to Normal” was directed by Michael Greif (who also directed that other Pulitzer Prize winner, “Rent”) when it opened on Broadway in 2009.
It recounts the story of a suburban mother and her family, all of whom are severely impacted by the insidious effects of her chronic bipolar disorder. In doing so, “Next to Normal” also touches on multiple topics, including grief, loss, prescription drug abuse, psychiatric treatment and suicide.
Though the subject matter is obviously quite serious — what makes this piece so compelling is that even though it is replete with gut-wrenching sadness, it still manages to find levity within a very bleak set of circumstances, while leaving one feeling inspired and hopeful at the end.
Directed by Bryan Fonseca — proving once again that he has an unwavering eye for unmatched talent — the “Next to Normal” cast includes Charlie Clark as Dan, Olivia Huntley as Natalie, Will Hutcheson as Gabe, Eric J. Olson as Doctors, Emily Ristine as Diana and Tyler Sarkis as Henry. Not only are all of the members of this ensemble stupendous actors, they are also top-notch singers.
Emily Ristine was exceptional in her nuanced portrayal of the mentally ill Diana, a mother who is traumatized and emotionally paralyzed due to the untimely death of her infant child. Particularly sublime was Ristine’s anguished performance of “I Dreamed a Dance,” a song which laments the loss of Diana’s dead son, who she realizes she has to let go of forever.
Will Hutcheson as Gabe, the affectionate teenaged son who only Diana sees through the grief-stricken prism of her psychosis, demonstrated an impressive dramatic and vocal range that portends a bright future for this young performer with inestimable talent. Showing a formidable presence, Hutcheson was electrifying in “I’m Alive” and affecting during a scene in which Gabe, who only exists in his mother’s tortured mind, dances with her in “There’s a World” — an interlude with near-tragic results.
Charlie Clark was highly effective as the infinitely patient and long-suffering Dan, the husband and father who perseveres despite the chaos his wife’s unpredictable illness inflicts on his family.
Also turning out a fine performance was Olivia Huntley as the family’s teenage daughter, Natalie, who is forced to compete with an illness that has kept her mother at a distance and stolen a secure and stable family life from her.
Rounding out this marvelous group of actors was Tyler Sarkis as Natalie’s loyal and empathetic boyfriend, Henry, and Eric J. Olson (who made a big splash in the title role of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” in September), who played several of Diana’s psychiatrists.
Ensuring the stellar artistic quality of the production’s music was pianist Kevin D. Smith, who led a six-piece band of musicians that accompanied a cast which impeccably executed Tom Kitt’s wondrous score, including its gorgeous harmonies.
For tickets and information about “Next to Normal” at the Phoenix Theatre, please call (317) 635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.
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