Encore Michigan

Encore’s ‘Next To Normal’ powerful and poignant

Review February 10, 2019 Kym Reinstadler

DEXTER — Encore Musical Theatre’s season is brimming with classic, feel-good shows like A Little Night Music, Hello Dolly! and Brigadoon.

And then there’s the theater’s current production, Next to Normal, which has a surging contemporary rock score and a story line best described as “feel everything.”

This is a powerful script, brilliantly executed, with some excellent songs that I’ll be adding to my iTunes playlist. But the emotional rigor of the show —despite ending on a hopeful note — left me feeling rather wrung out and in need of a hug.

See this show, but don’t go expecting a light-hearted love story speckled with dance numbers.  Next to Normal is an exhilarating but also anguishing look at a family that, after many years, is finally facing up the mother’s bipolar disorder with delusional episodes — and the traumatic event that triggered the illness.

This play with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010.

Encore’s production features a strong acting ensemble starring Courtney Riddle and Ron Williams as Diana and Dan Goodman, Elisabeth Garber as the Goodmans’ daughter Natalie, Mat Percek as the Goodmans’ son Gabe, Isaac A. Orr as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry, and David Moan in the role of various doctors.

Hats should be off and waving for the performances of Riddle and Williams for managing to sing beautifully while acting roles of characters in the throes of crippling emotional pain. Their songs are a variegated punch of anger, sorrow, guilt and yearning that power the show.

Garber is very good as the acerbic Natalie, a 16-year-old who is petrified of “becoming her mother,” yet feels forever spurned by her. Her song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is especially poignant.

The most uplifting and infectious song in the show is Pecek’s “I’m Alive,” but it’s all a guise. His character haunts the household like grief and sadness that will take your breath away.

This show tells different aspects of the same story simultaneously in different areas of a creatively designed, multi-level set. Some of the best examples are the duets “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I “ and “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling.”

The most plaintive moment comes when, in an extended effort to achieve better living through prescription medicines, Riddle’s character Diana tells her doctor that she doesn’t feel like herself.  “In fact,” she confides, “I don’t feel anything.”

At that point, the good doctor pronounces: “The patient is stable.”

Of course, an existence with blunted emotions is no way to live, either. Especially for Diana, who rather enjoys the emotional highs of her illness.  

In the end, Diana decides one doesn’t “have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.” Natalie knows her family will never be normal but “Maybe,” if they stick by each other, they might achieve a “next-to-normal” family life that would be good enough.

We hope they all make it.

Classic musicals usually leave me feeling more satisfied and certainly less distressed than this contemporary musical.

But Next to Normal is a classic example of the power of musical theatre to evoke raw emotions with deep roots in real life.

Week of 7/15/2019

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