"Next to Normal," show #865
Updated: May 22
In Laramie Dawn Woolsey’s director’s note, she writes, “My hope is that our audiences find pieces of themselves reflected in this show…” Yes, Ms. Woolsey. Your production, co-directed with Jessica Meredith, absolutely accomplishes your intent, and magnificently at that.
Next to Normal is not for the faint of heart and mind. It is a musical that challenges you, putting issues of mental health, family dynamics, loss, use of medication (whether prescribed or for recreational use), and many more front-and-center. For a director, to take on Next to Normal is to assume responsibility for its material, its themes, and to demonstrate how relevant its dialogue and lyrics are for those who have lived a life similar to the Goodmans. Meredith and Woolsey have not only risen to this occasion, but have helmed a phenomenally impactful production.
(Seated L to R: Terry Lewis (Dan), Lex Martin (Henry), Brittany Smith (Natalie); Standing Back: Jason Bionda (Gabe); Standing Front: Camille Gaston (Diana); Photo credit: Kyle Lowe)
Camille Gaston and Terry Lewis head the Goodman family as Diana and Dan, respectively, and do so with magnetic chemistry, except the magnets repel one another; it’s laden through Dan’s lyrics in the act one lullaby-finale, ‘A Light in the Dark’: ‘Take my hand and let me take your heart/keep it far from what keeps apart,’ and Lewis and Gaston stay true to the lyrics. For a couple to have so much love for one another and yet such contradictory views on parenting and how to pursue Diana’s medical treatment provide a bedrock of tension which Gaston and Lewis deliver with extraordinary nuance and truth.
(Camille Gaston (Diana); Photo credit: Edgar Olivera)
Gaston’s Diana is a daring, strong, and absorbent matriarch, whose constant questioning of what she’s forgetting, what she’s remembering, and simply the life she wants to live is effective from curtain to final note. The few times we see Diana truly content, such as in a beautifully sung and staged, “I Miss the Mountains,” serves as hope that maybe there is a light at the end of her tunnel. Often times, we see the characters of Gabe (Dan and Diana’s son), Drs. Fine and Madden, and Dan speaking at Diana, telling her what she needs to do, and what the consequences are for the next step she makes, while Diana simply absorbs, processes, and goes with whichever voice is most persuasive at the moment. However, at various times throughout the play, Diana builds the strength to say goodbye to each of the three. Each time Gaston delivers these farewells, whether it be after a stirring “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling (reprise)”, an impassioned “So Anyway,” or throughout her act one scene work opposite Jason Bionda’s Gabe, an empowering force surges through Gaston’s Diana; a surge that is palpable to the audience and artistically drives her performance.
(Terry Lewis (Dan) and Jason Bionda (Gabe); Photo credit: Edgar Olivera)
The actors portraying her counterparts balance Gaston’s powerful performance with vulnerable reactions and deliveries. However, every character in Diana’s orbit plays a role in her treatment, emotional lows, and tiny-but-mighty highs. Terry Lewis makes every bit of use of his many “I Am’ statements and songs, especially in an emotionally-driven “I Am the One (reprise)” alongside Bionda, always declaring what he will do as the husband and father to fix the problem rather than hearing what his wife or daughter actually want. Dan certainly means well--most of the time--in his attempt to help his family, mainly his wife, but is constantly reverting back to how times used to be. While Diana does this, too–her journey is one of trying to grieve a tragedy and recall what life was before her diagnoses–Dan’s effort is rooted in how things used to be because of his preference of the Before Times, how young he felt then, and how inspired his love life was with Diana when they were just starting out. Lewis’s contributions to the opening “Just Another Day” and his bouncy demeanor in the denial-ridden “It’s Gonna Be Good” solidify his grasp of Dan’s intentions, and ultimately makes his ending fate one that the audience can truly empathize with. Lewis captures the audience from the jump, giving us a Dan we can relate to, occasionally despise, and on some level, connect with.
(Brittany Smith (Natalie) and Camille Gaston (Diana); Photo credit: Edgar Olivera)
Brittany Smith, Jason Bionda, and Lex Martin are simply fantastic as the play’s teens, Natalie, Gabe, and Henry, respectively. The sibling bond shared between Smith and Bionda’ is crafted as a hugely satisfying slow burn, one where they share similar qualities and differing ways to handle their parents’ attention. A triumphantly sung, staged, and acted “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” nearly brought me to my feet and literally brought tears to my eyes. Smith’s vocals fit like a glove on Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s rockin’ score, especially in her introductory solo “Everything Else,” and opposite Gaston in “Maybe (Next to Normal),” giving the women a chance to connect as mother and daughter in an emotionally satisfying culmination. Bionda gives a predatorily passionate performance as Gabe. In the hands of the wrong actor, Gabe can come across as simply a selfish agent of chaos for Diana and Dan. Bionda proves there’s more as they deliver soaring vocals in “I’m Alive,” with Gaston and Lewis in “I Am the One,’ and its reprise with Lewis in an emotional coming-to-grips-encounter between father and son. Bionda, however, also gives depth to Gabe in how the pursuance of Diana’s mental capacity and Dan’s attention is fully-realized and nuanced rather than simply self-serving. Bionda’s connection to the rest of the cast illuminates every motivation which lives in Gabe, and the performance is precise in its layered delivery. Martin gives every ounce of good-guy stoner opposite Smith’s paranoid and rebellious Natalie, providing a generous helping of relatable teenage angst and love. It never gets lost, structurally, how close Natalie and Henry’s story mirrors Dan and Diana’s, whether being an ideal or a past memory. Martin’s vocals are sublime in “Perfect for You” and the triplet of “Hey”s in act two. His and Smith’s chemistry is instant, alluring, and develops well among Henry’s constant I Can Do This For You mentality, providing a positive foil to Natalie’s I Can’t Be Like This demeanor.
(Brittany Smith (Natalie) and Lex Martin (Henry); Photo credit: Kyle Lowe)
Ben Sells gives a humanity I didn’t know was possible for Doctors Fine and Madden. Often showing off some fun vocal riffs and dominating medical speech, the Doctors serve to represent the medical authorities in how mental health can often be misdiagnosed, mistreated, and can get the pass-the-buck treatment when a mistake is made or promise for improvement is broken. However, Sells finds the duality in a doctor who truly is trying his best while needing Diana as much as she—is told—needs him. Yes he really wants to help, but also he doesn’t have every answer we assume he should. Meredith and Woolsey’s directorial work bring to glaring light the connectivity between Dan and Dr. Madden’s need of Diana while simultaneously telling her what needs to be done with consent that doesn’t reach further than her simply signing on the dotted line. Sells’ vocals throughout the show are solid and well-placed among his fellow actors, giving his doctors an emotional tug when the pacing requires it. With a score full of I Am, I Want, and You Should statements and attitudes, Sells’ doctors stand out as the sole I Wish I Could role. Shelby Guizar is well-utilized as a featured dancer, making Jacob Moon’s movement a fluid highlight at key times in Diana’s journey. Guizar’s dance turns neither distract or attempt to improve the Pulitzer-winning musical, but simply give audiences an additional point-of-focus along with Sami Villes superb projection design.
(Ben Sells (Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine; Photo credit: Kyle Lowe)
Supplying both jarring and fluid lighting design is Christina McCollum, who sublimely matches the emotional rollercoaster and revelations made by the characters. Mindy Ramos’s vocal direction doesn’t miss a note in blending this powerhouse cast's voices while also giving texture and dynamism to the solos, duets, and trios. Jack Landseadel leads a tight band that is musically intimate and altogether solid. The Woolsey Family has designed one of the most perfectly conceptualized sets I have ever seen in a musical drama. With a near all-white home interior, white sheet backdrop, and only select props/pieces having color, the audience is immediately put into Diana’s reality, the very reality she is attempting to control and manage; the very reality that strongly resembles what a patient who is placed in a hospital would experience. The audience is immediately set in Diana’s world and there is no escaping until the production says so, and that’s how you do Next to Normal. That’s how you handle a show having layers of social and medical commentary with sensitivity, responsibility, and impact.
This is a show you may think you know, and then a company like Selma Arts Center takes it on and says, “but wait, there’s more.” Go get your more. See this show.