By Steven Williams
Next to Normal, presented by Ziegfeld Theater Company in Park City, is a rock style musical that tells the story of a family rocked by tragedy, loss, illness, drug abuse, and suicide. A specific emphasis on the loss of a child and the fight with mental illness is the central theme around Next to Normal. With so many themes at work and such heavy topics, Next to Normal excels at being clear, easy to follow, and honest. Ziegfeld Theater Company knocked this one out of the park in every aspect of impactful theater.
Rick Rea (Director) led this cast and crew to a real work of art. Rea has been instrumental in several notable works presented here in Utah. His talent and knowledge are front and center in this presentation of Next to Normal.
The set is a stroke of genius. Caleb Parry and Rea (Set Design) welcome us into a home that is a 3D blueprint, with writing on the walls indicating the necessary dimensions and intended layout. This is a minimalist set design that evokes a complete atmosphere for the narrative. This decision works for me on so many levels. These visuals echo the questions that are raised throughout the production. How did what we are seeing come from the original plans and intentions? Are there specific dimensions and plans behind where we are now? What makes a building a home? Where are things supposed to be?
Alicia Kondrick (Costume Design) enhances the passing of time and circumstance with a modern wardrobe that allows the characters to look like real people while also hinting at the changes that are taking place within them. We see the characters appearances slowly getting darker while attempting to look normal. This type of attention to detail and meticulous planning helps me to understand why it takes my wife multiple attempts in getting dressed before we can eventually leave the house.
Kyle A. Lawrence (Props Design) includes a few superman Easter eggs while providing the essential items to allow us to believe that we are watching something real happen. Not an overwhelmingly prop heavy production, so a perfect marriage to the minimal set.
The sound and lighting designs by Eliza Haynie, Hyrum Summerhays and Peter Mayhew provide clear dialogue, a powerful live music environment and color tones to amplify the emotions being displayed on stage. These elements create a very professional look and feel that elevate the show to such a professional level that the tickets feel underpriced. The Band is incredible, their timing is flawless. I witnessed Jonathan McDonald (Conductor and Piano), Christine Warren (Violin), Yian Chi (Cello), Jacob Lambros (Guitar), Ivy Augusta Smith (Bass) and Justin Lord (Drums) earn a spontaneous applause when they returned to the stage after intermission, well deserved.
The following review on the cast will be real and honest. It’s only fair to tell the truth and name names. I can honestly say that this cast has no weak link. No performances were phoned in. I’m easy to pull out of the theater experience by anything that reminds me that I’m watching a performance and not real life. It’s like Somewhere in Time for me, one reminder of what time I’m really in and the magic is gone. But the ENTIRE cast became and stayed the characters, truly talented group. Let’s get specific.
Shawnee Kennington (Diana) portrays a mother, wife, and woman who has undergone extraordinary loss and struggles with illness throughout her life. Kennington made me feel that the struggle is real, and that the issues of mental illness are very complicated and deserve a deeper focus. Kennington shows how truly impossible it is to be everything to everyone while holding yourself together. Her time on stage is not only plot driving but also heartbreaking. Kennington’s vocals are both powerful and able to express a great amount of vulnerability.
Jake T. Holt (Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden) reveals that the science of medicine is more of a trial and error system. His attempts to treat or free Diana from her burdens, shed an uncomfortable light on the lack of knowledge and precision that we have in the field of mental illnesses. Holt brings very needed levity to several tough scenes via his rock star persona and his authentic bedside manner. His vocal ability is solid and made me wish that he had additional songs.
Tanner Horan (Gabe) was probably born to play the part of Diana’s lost son. Horan is both a delightful teenager and a twisted evil curse that has us completely torn between wanting him gone and wanting him back. His musical number “I’m Alive” is both catchy and haunting. Horan’s voice is a surprising strength in several of the musical numbers that he is featured in, including “I am the One”, “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl” and “There’s a World”. Horan’s strong vocal presence is required to drive home the duality of his character and he delivers.
Craig Williams (Dan) Diana’s husband is the man that attempts to keep all the plates spinning. His struggle is so similar to Diana’s in that his world is slipping away from him despite his best efforts. Williams shows us how alone we can be while trying to keep a family together. His desperation and frustration in palatable, especially in “Who’s Crazy”.
Cooper Lavallee (Henry) is the loveable pothead that we don’t want our daughters to date until we really get to know how good he is to her. Lavallee is the outsider, whose journey into the family is both a welcome bit of sanity and a surprising parallel. His ability to portray integrity with a touch of innocence is the stuff great leading protagonists are made of.
Hailee Olenberger (Natalie) is the teenage daughter that is perfect until you let her slip through the cracks through neglect. Olenberger is a true double-barreled shotgun when it comes to performance and vocals. Her attention to detail is amazing, I noticed that when her character played the piano, I could have sworn that her fingers were actually playing the notes, even though there was a band on stage and her prop was an air piano. Olenberger’s “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl” was the musical number that I still can’t get out of my head, and her flawless execution of it is certainly the reason why.
What this show truly deserves is a packed audience every showtime. It is a powerful story with an insanely talented cast and crew. This show is for adult audiences, there is adult language that adds to the show in a natural and realistic way. The message and questions that Next to Normal raises are relevant and completely worth taking in.
The Ziegfeld Theater presents Next to Normal, by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main Street, Park City, Utah 84060 Through September 16th Thursdays through Sundays 8:00 PM Tickets: Thursday $19/$23/$29 Friday-Sunday $23/$29/$35 Contact: 435-649-9371