By Jennifer Mustoe
As I walked into UVU’s Noorda Theater, there was a blueish haze that made me feel ethereal, unreal, and slightly unsettled. It’s a good way to welcome people into UVU’s production of Next to Normal. Because, without giving too much away, prepare to feel unsettled. Also, if the audience (and I) are any indication, bring tissues. There were lots of sniffles going on all around me.
Next to Normal is about one woman’s fight for “normal” in the form of mental health and how her struggle to be healthy has affected her family. She tries every therapy and pharmaceutical possible, but it seems like nothing’s working.
The set for Next to Normal is open, with a metal feel. It looked like a jail. There is a reason for this, as the mental illness Diana struggles with has jailed her and her family. There were many levels to the set, all connected with stairways, and beneath the middle, highest bit is where the live band is. No, what I mean is, the AWESOME live band is.
Frankly, the whole show was so good that I’m not sure where to start.
The cast is small and tight. We went to a talk back session after the show, and it was clear that the family bonds that can often form when you are in a show definitely formed here. The cast was a cohesive unit and that may have been one of the reasons why Next to Normal is so powerful. I could see all this really happening to this family. I could see this happening in real life. And obviously, this story touched many people in the audience because, as I said, I heard a lot of sniffles and a few sobs.
Jacquelyne Jones plays Diana Goodman so marveously that when I saw her at the talk back, I really wanted to ask, so just how mentally ill are you? It seemed almost a for sure that she was as nuts as Diana. (She isn’t. She’s just a great actress.) Ms. Jones can sing, act, and look fabulous as she falls farther and farther into madness. Interestingly, during the talkback, few people asked Jones any questions. I got the feeling that she really played her part so well that talking to her might hurt. I know that’s how I felt. She got too close to my own pain and I needed to keep her at a distance.
“Gabe” Gabriel Goodman is played by Topher Rasmussen. I love the casting of this talented young man. He can sing, has a very physical part to play and seems completely comfortable singing right in the face of the other cast members. But there is something rather angelic about Rasmussen and this works in his favor, too, for the part he is asked to play of the boy who never grew up. (I’m trying not to give too much away here.) I loved Rasmussen’s response at the talkback when asked how he prepared for the part of the son. He said, “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out about Gabe. Was he a ghost? Was he a manifestation of Diana’s mental illness? And then I realized I was an idiot. I was just their son.” I appreciated the depth of Rasmussen’s character development and his willingness to share his journey with us.
Diana’s long suffering husband Dan is played by Benjamin J. Henderson. He has a tough role as the One Who Never Gives Up. He loves his wife, loves his daughter but really just wants to move on with life. He doesn’t understand Diana’s problems but just trudges on to doctor after doctor. When Henderson is singing about the young person he was once who fell in love with Diana and then “had” to marry her, I thought my heart would break. Bravo, Mr. Henderson. You nailed Dan.
Zoe Wilde plays the Goodmans’ daughter, Natalie. Ms. Wilde has a good voice, but her acting skills are what truly glowed in this production. Natalie tries to be the Best Child Ever to make up for Gabe’s loss. Natalie does everything but it’s never enough. In one scene where she and her mother are trying to help Diana get her memory back after Diana has had electric shock therapy, the mother and daughter are going through photos and we learn the amount of things Diana has done that are, um, well, a little crazy. Natalie has been through hell and Wilde showed it all. I hurt with Natalie and felt somewhat angry that this poor, innocent kid had to suffer so much.
Andrew Robertson’s Henry was my favorite character, maybe because he was probably the most normal of all of them and didn’t make me wholly uncomfortable. Yeah, the kid smokes dope, but he loves Natalie and may be the only sanity she has during the dark times in her family. Robertson is a fabulous actor, can sing and has the sweetest, hunky teenage face, he would make any girl swoon. And he is so genuinely nice to Natalie. I loved the chemistry between Robertson and Wilde.
Jacob Theo Squire played the two doctors in the show. Though they didn’t need to be remarkably different, Squire showed he can play two similar characters and show their differences. Of course, one is a “scary rock star,” a scene I loved. Squire has a lovely voice and wonderful presence onstage.
There are many scenes and songs in the show that pretty much blew me away, and I knew the show would be amazing because I recently saw director Dave Tinney’s Urinetown at the Hale Center Theater Orem and loved it so much I went twice. Tinney takes the scene where Diana is getting electric shock and to say it was electrifying is totally punny but completely true. A gurney with “Diana” laying on it is wheeled out. On top of the highest part of the set is the real Diana, and she is singing during the “procedure” describing what electroshock feels like. (I am shaking as I type this and I saw this show three days ago. The scene is that powerful that I still am amazed at its force.) The rest of the actors pull long, thin bands of elastic from the top of the set and attach them to the sides of the gurney where “Diana’s” head is, so the elastic looks like long lines of electricity. The other actors go in and out of the bands, sometimes getting caught in them, sometimes overlapping them, all at a frenetic pace. During the height of the song, all the actors hold several bands and twitch them, making them look even more powerful. If Tinney was trying to get us to understand the sadness and horror of electroshock therapy, he got his wish.
I am a big Dave Tinney fan and can only add my undying applause for this production.
Costumes by Heather Michelle Oles were great. Diana always wore grey and often stripes, like a jail costume. The ballgown for Natalie was exquisite.
If you love good music in a musical, good LIVE music, do not miss Next to Normal. Music director Robb Moffatt brought an amazing sound to this production and amassed an amazing bunch of musicians. While there may have been a few blips with the singers, I couldn’t hear a wrong, flat, too loud or too soft note with the players. At. All.
Though I don’t usually write about dramaturgs, I am going to in this review. Heather Oberlander did her homework about mental illness and it was obvious that all who were involved in this production had empathy and compassion for this sad, sick family. We felt it as an audience and Tinney in the talkback made special mention of Overlander’s research so I am giving her that same nod in this review.
I understand Next to Normal sold out on Saturday, so I suggest you get your tickets ASAP. This show does have some language, but any teenager or older will be fine with this show. In fact, any teenager or older SHOULD go see this show. It’s remarkable, timely, important and amazing.
UVU Noorda Theater
800 W University Pkwy, Orem, UT 84058
801-863-4636http://www.uvu.edu/theatre/noorda/Next to Normal plays Nov. 7-9, 11-12, 14-16, 18, 21-23 at 7:30 PM. Matinee 11/23 2 PM.$12.00 general seating (come early if possible)