Encore Michigan

Tibbits’ ‘Next To Normal’ intense and powerful

Review September 17, 2019 Marin Heinritz

COLDWATER, Mich.–It is little wonder Next to Normal, the multiple Tony Award winning Broadway hit, is among the very few musicals to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The gripping tale of a mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder and its ripple effects on her family is so poignant and so moving, the New York Times described it as a “feel everything” musical—a wonderful diversion from the more commonly expected feel-good musical.

Charles Burr, artistic director of Tibbits Summer Theatre here,
made a long standing dream of his come true in directing the show here, and the production makes good on the brilliance of this award-winning rock musical written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt with an excellent cast who give fine performances with the support of interesting design modeled after the Broadway show.

To describe the plot with any specificity is to ruin important surprise
plot twists, though the writing is spectacular for its structure with
meaningful parallelisms, unexpected humor, literary references, and complex characters to which practically anyone who has been a parent or been parented can relate.

And to follow Stephanie Burdick’s astounding portrayal of Diana as she
suffers through a bipolar life triggered by a trauma that quite literally
haunts her as well as the challenges of failed treatments is to be wowed
and yet also intimately drawn in by her fierce vulnerability as well as her
powerful yet nuanced singing.

The rest of this small and mighty ensemble matches her intensity, with
standout performances by Jennifer Barnaba as Natalie, the daughter in
crisis, who is also a powerhouse of a singer; Michael Motkowski as her
charming and lovable stoner boyfriend; Matthew C. Scott as wonderfully real and empathetic husband Dan; Taylor Joseph Rivera as a beautifully haunting Gabe; and Sean Noonan who doubles as Diana’s appropriately responsive, authoritative, and strange doctors.

The acting overall is stronger than the singing, save for the women whose
voices are sublime; however, their overwhelming effect is one that is
profoundly touching.

The effects are hastened by Aaron Bell and Rachel Lucas’s dramatic
two-level black set, like a see-though doll house in which individual rooms
are framed with lights by Catie Blencowe—which are otherwise soft in
transitions and grow in boldness as Diana’s moods shift.

Music Director Matthew Everingham leads a fine orchestra as well as the
actor-singers who together bring this fantastic score to great heights.

Next to Normal remains a terrific oddity among musical theatre
productions for its deep dive into a very dark part of the human experience
with grace, humor, verisimilitude, and, though the finale suggests a
movement toward light, without providing false hope or a solution or even a true resolution. It questions and redefines “normal” and “perfect” and in
so doing breaks down some fundamental and unnecessary barriers between us.