by Mark G. Auerbach
There’s something triumphant in musical theatre happening at Hartford’s TheaterWorks. In an intimate theatre, a powerhouse of a musical envelops its audience, in a production whose staging and performances rival, if not exceed, the original on Broadway. Next to Normal is just superb on every level. Rob Ruggiero’s staging is imaginative, yet simple. Wilson Chin’s set design, with revolving stage, sliding panels with dozens of lamps, is fascinating, and John Lasiter’s lighting design borders on perfection. Adam Souza’s music direction brings out the best of Tom Kitt’s score, and his band compliments the singers and the score. Ed Chapman’s sound design balances singers and band; every lyric can be clearly heard, and every harmony is balanced.
Be forewarned though. There are no showstopping dance routines, sparkles, spangles, crashing chandeliers or helicopters. Next to Normal is a tense musical drama about a middle-aged suburban housewife, Diana, who is dealing with a bipolar disorder. The musical charts her course towards recovery and her family’s struggles to deal with her illness and its impact on their own lives. Tom Kitt provided the music, rock in some areas, and simply soulfull in others. “I Miss The Mountains”, Diana’s haunting first act aria of sorts, is simple, yet beautiful. Brian Yorkey provided the book and lyrics. Next to Normal took Broadway by storm in 2009 and took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s a completely original concept not adapted from a book, play or film. It’s a deeply involving portrait of the impact of her illness on a family, all good people caught in tough circumstances.
Next to Normal isn’t the first musical to deal with mental illness or psychiatry. In 1941, Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin wrote the big hit Lady in The Dark, where a glamourous and successful magazine editor seeks psychoanalysis. She’s anxious, because she can’t make up her mind about work or a potential husband. Several Sondheim musicals profile characters on the far cusp of normal from Sweeney Todd’s demon barber to the presidential killers in Assassins, to an entire asylum on the loose in a crooked town in Anyone Can Whistle. Then, there’s the more than slightly daffy Bouvier Beale mom and daughter duo of Grey Gardens. But, these characters are not the boys and girls next door, and their issues seems distant. The Goodman family of Next to Normal could be your neighbors, colleagues, or friends.
Hartford’s TheaterWorks is not known for doing musicals, although its Artistic Director, Rob Ruggiero is, having staged some of nearby Goodspeed Musicals’ most successful and innovative musicals in recent years. In fact, Ruggiero just picked up a St. Louis Theatre Critics Award for his direction of Sondheim’s Follies. Ruggiero assembled two of the finest musical theatre talents around, Broadway’s Christiane Noll, who starred in Ruggiero’s Follies, and Australia’s David Harris, for his leads. Noll was stunning on Broadway in Chaplin; and Harris was suave as Billy Crocker in last season’s Anything Goes at Goodspeed.
Noll and Harris are both tour-de-force, surrounded by an accomplished ensemble: John Cardoza is affecting as “Gabe”, the role originated by Aaron Tveit on Broadway. Maya Keleher is terrific as the family daughter, Natalie, the role played by Longmeadow actress Meghann Fahy on Broadway. Nick Sacks is a likeable boyfriend for daughter Natalie; and J.D. Daw is fine as Diana’s doctor.
Next to Normal, because of overwhelming advance ticket sales, has been extended to May 7. On its own terms, it’s superb musical theatre. In TheaterWorks’ hands, it may make you become a fan of this innovative Hartford theatre troupe in a big way.
TheaterWorks presents Next to Normal. Music by Tom Kitt. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Music direction by Adam Souza. Choreography by Ralph Perkins. Scenic design by Wilson Chin. Costume design by Tricia Barsamian. Lighting design by John Lasiter. Sound design by Ed Chapman. Cast: Christiane Noll as Diana; David Harris as Dan; John Cardoza, J.D. Daw, Maya Keleher, and Nick Sacks. Through May 7. TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT. For tickets: 860-527-7838 or www.theaterworkshartford.org
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio.