(COVER PHOTO: Brandon Lee and Michael Skrzek in a scene from the musical “Next to Normal,” presented by Studio Theatre Worcester, now playing in Worcester, MA. through June 26, 2022. Photo by Amy Mae Photography.)
By Kevin T. Baldwin
"Maybe we can't be okay but maybe we're tough and we'll try anyway. "
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by John Wayland Somers
Music Direction by Kris Layton
Additional Choreography by Kim Bourassa
Cast Includes: Barbara Kessler, Brandon Lee, Cassie Donegan, Cristiano Lourenco, Jr., Michael Skrzek and Ben Huu.
Additional Production Team Includes: Produced by Rob Klimeczko; Stage Managed by Anna Levin; Technical Design by David N. Farreh; Costume Design by Valerie Schillawski; Assistant Stage Manager/PA Jodi Schoolcraft; Graphic Design by Katie Hebert.
June 16 through June 26, 2022
(Contact Box Office for Exact Times)
Tickets $25 each General Admission.
Salem Covenant Church, 215 Mountain Street East, Worcester, MA 01606
Studio Theatre Worcester (STW) receives a positive diagnosis for its staging of the powerful musical, "Next to Normal" continuing a solid brand established by the group's mission statement to offer the Worcester community productions of "high-quality theatrical works."
The musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, has been lauded as a "dark," depressing" or even an "angsty" musical.
It is none of those things (although "angsty" does merit some consideration).
It is more an unambiguous musical - a blatant, honest depiction of a troubled family trying to work its way out of a tangled web of disfunction, one woven by a bad mixture of mental illness, misery and medicine.
Also, if one wanted to try to put a visible blueprint of a troubled mind on stage, it would probably look a lot like the set of "Next to Normal." You feel like you are literally looking at the mind of a unsettled individual or at least how they see their life on a troubled day by troubled day basis.
Meet the Goodmans: Dan and Diana (portrayed respectively by Brandon Lee and Barbara Kessler) and their teenage daughter, Natalie (Cassie Donegan).
Right off the bat, it should be emphasized that all three actors give thoughtful, sensitive portrayals of their characters who contend with Diana's ongoing mental health crisis - a crisis connected to a bi-polar diagnosis and manifesting itself in the human form of the couple's first son, Gabe (Michael Skrzek).
But in Yorkey's story, the impression the character of ghostly Gabe gives is one that spans from departed devoted son to devious demon and every cliché in between.
So, is Gabe malevolent spirit or merely the result of overmedicating a malignant condition?
That is the question the musical seems to want to dance around and certainly does as the show progresses.
Brandon Lee gives an astute portrayal of the paternal Dan, trying desperately to keep his family together. Yet the show tends to make him appear more like the cruise ship director of the Titanic trying to keep everybody calm long after the iceberg hit and the dance band drowned.
Kessler and Donegan both are simply (pardon the pun) "electrifying" as mother and daughter and nail each and every musical moment. Donegan, especially, has a natural comedic flair for the character of Natalie and that occasionally tends to go missing in other portrayals.
Skrzek is absolutely riveting as Gabe and whenever he exits the stage, for long moments at a time, the anticipation for his impending "return" is fierce. His rendition of the song "I'm Alive" is intensely captivating.
(PHOTO: Brandon Lee and Michael Skrzek in a scene from the musical “Next to Normal,” presented by Studio Theatre Worcester, now playing in Worcester, MA. through June 26, 2022. Photo by Amy Mae Photography.)
With all its merits, "Next to Normal" is not a show that will appeal to everyone. It is not a "feel good" musical and many of the sub-plots contained in the show never fully get resolved.
However, that isn't the intent, either. The intent is to keep the discussion ongoing long after you leave the theatre - and this is where the show and the STW production ultimately succeed.
In the show's program, there are no less than seven pages all devoted to the subject of bi-polar disorder, mental health statistics, important terminology explanations and valuable medical resources for anyone who might require them. There are also on-site social workers present and a post-show discussion which seek to further the discussion of the show's content.
The above efforts prove that this is one area theatre that, at least for the purpose of the important medical subject matter contained within "Next to Normal," recognizes a high degree of social responsibility.
John Wayland Somers' finely tuned stage direction for "Next to Normal" is enhanced by a phenomenally creative set by Technical Designer David N. Farreh appearing to work almost in perfect unison.
The blocking choices by Somers help drive the show, moving fluidly from scene to scene, moment to moment, from beginning to end. Any down time for set re-dressing was minimal.
Aiding to the show's success musically are the efforts by Music Director Kris Layton and the "Next to Normal Band".
(PHOTO: The CAST of the musical “Next to Normal,” presented by Studio Theatre Worcester, now playing in Worcester, MA. through June 26, 2022. Photo by Amy Mae Photography.)
There was one section of Farreh's stage (upper level, stage right) which had a noticeable illuminating dead spot. Anyone singing in that one spot was in near total darkness.
Also, the aforementioned band had a tendency to overpower some of the individual performers and, at the start of Act Two with the song "Wish I Were Here," all but drowned out all the actors singing on stage.
As spring ends and summer begins, "Next to Normal" is intense, visceral musical entertainment that succeeds in engaging, enlightening, entertaining and informing all who are fortunate enough to attend.
Approximately two hours with one intermission
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)
ABOUT THE SHOW
Next to Normal, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, explores how one suburban household copes with crisis and mental illness. Winner of three 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical Score and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, Next to Normal was also chosen as "one of the year's ten best shows" by critics around the country, including The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and The New York Times.Dad's an architect; Mom rushes to pack lunches and pour cereal; their daughter and son are bright, wise-cracking teens, appearing to be a typical American family. And yet their lives are anything but normal because the mother has been battling manic depression for 16 years. Next to Normal takes audiences into the minds and hearts of each character, presenting their family's story with love, sympathy and heart.This deeply moving piece of theatre provides a wonderful opportunity for performers to explore dramatic material and showcase vocal talents with an energetic pop/rock score.
Next to Normal is an emotional powerhouse that addresses such issues as grieving a loss, ethics in modern psychiatry, and suburban life and is ideal for community theatres, as well as colleges and regional theatre companies." -mtishows
ABOUT STUDIO THEATRE WORCESTER
The mission of Studio Theatre Worcester is to engage with and inspire the Worcester community by producing high-quality theatrical works, cultivating new plays and musicals, and providing arts education programs to develop the future theatre artists, designers, technicians, and administrators of tomorrow.
Studio Theatre Worcester will be the professional theatre of choice for artists, designers, educators and theatregoers in Central Massachusetts.
Produce QUALITY productions that elicit VISCERAL experiences for our patrons. Foster INCLUSIVITY, DIVERSITY, and EQUITY throughout all areas of our organization. Encourage continued learning by providing EDUCATION opportunities. Promote and invest in the use of LOCAL talent. Invest in INNOVATION to keep the costs of our productions and classes affordable. Develop a strong bond with the COMMUNITY.