Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at SecondStory Repertory

NEXT TO NORMAL
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Through Mar. 15, 2015
SecondStory Repertory
16587 NE 74th St
Redmond, WA 98052 
Everybody has a blind spot or two. Or, at least, others think they do. I have a friend who writes about theatre both professionally and recreationally, and who thinks that NEXT TO NORMAL is The Worst Musical Ever and Everything That’s Wrong With Musical Theatre Today.
This review is for the rest of you…
OK, I’ll grant that NEXT TO NORMAL is not an easy show – not easy to sing or act, not easy for directors and actors to find the characters, not easy to sit through in the light-entertainment sense. It raises serious questions about sanity and insanity, visibility and invisibility, memory and forgetting. But the journey is, I think, rich in rewards. And this production, especially, finds substance I’ve never seen in any other production, from coast to coast.
We meet the Goodmans – OK, maybe a little obvious – on a morning like any other. For them, anyway. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the world of wife and mother Diana might be somewhat off-kilter, as her sandwich-making turns compulsive. And the Goodmans themselves – Diana, husband Dan, daughter Natalie, son Gabe – may not all be who or what they seem, either. Gabe’s overpowering influence on his mother and nobody else, Natalie’s frustration at disconnection from her mother, Dan’s struggling to hold the family together as Diana melts down and passes from therapist to (rock-star) therapist… yield a family dynamic (capped with the addition of Henry, Natalie’s sweet stoner of a suitor) that is far from (even next to) normal, but also, familiar in many ways.
When you ask people what N2N is about, the short answer is often “electroconvulsive (shock) therapy” – that certainly is an important element, reflected in the original developmental title of the show (and title of one of the songs still), FEELING ELECTRIC. But Diana’s journey to, and through, ECT is just the catalyst for the complex dance that the Goodmans will do, on their way to negotiated survival, and spiritual light.
I’ve always been a little disappointed with some of the character dynamics of the show – every production I’ve seen before seemed to reflect the natures of the characters too much in the dynamics of the performances as well. It’s always seemed that Diana and Natalie had the highs and lows, Gabe a few mysteriously explosive and seductively sweet turns, and Dan and Henry left to be the stable, reassuring, but somewhat wooden pillars on which the production rests. This is the first production that, to me, really let the male partners, and especially Dan, be full and equal emotional forces in the show.
Diana and Natalie have always been strong diva roles, and Ann Cornelius and Regan Morris are wonderful in them. Cornelius, a performer new to Seattle but from whom I hope to see lots more, carries the bombast of the highs and lows of Diana perfectly, and also, knows when to speak, even near-whisper, a line or phrase to make it really hit home. There were many places her vocal performance was reminiscent of Alice Ripley’s at her best in the show, paired with some surprisingly soft, almost painfully quiet readings. And Morris is spot-on as Natalie: hurt, angry, giddy, controlled, out of control… and always pitch-perfect both vocally and as a scene companion for each of the others.
The revelation in this production, though, as I said, are the male partners, Ryan McCabe as Dan and Christopher Ellis as Henry. McCabe has been a mainstay of Seattle theatre for as long as I’ve been here, but in his Dan, he reaches new levels of both personal accomplishment and character complexity. Having played the supporting roles of the doctors in Balagan’s fine production a couple of years ago, he truly finds the soul and fragility of Dan Goodman, husband and father, trying to balance past and future while being buffeted by the world of now. He sings and acts it with subtlety, vulnerability, and presence beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the role, and beyond anything I’ve ever seen from him. His performances in KISS OF THE SPIDER-WOMAN, [title of show] (also directed by Jeff Orton), and many more shows were terrific, but this is an entirely new and brilliant level. Ellis, too, finds both a naivete in Henry, and a well-defined stoner nature, that raises the character to an equal to Natalie, rather than just a foil for her. 
It’s a pleasure to see the male roles so in balance with the women – something that is to the credit of each of the actors, but also, to the directing chops of Jeff Orton. By letting smaller moments be smaller but not less crystalline-sharp, he makes room for the bigger ones to hit hard.
You may notice that I didn’t mention Nicholas Tarabini’s performance as Gabe. I mean that as no slight to him – it’s simply an issue of timing. The performance I attended is one of those that every small company fears: the sudden injury or illness without an understudy. Apparently, Tarabini has been singing his heart out in the role; unfortunately, he’s also sung his voice out, resulting in total laryngitis for tonight’s performance. Director Orton made a bold call, and one that is especially suited (without giving too much plot away here) to the character of Gabe: to have Tarabini act the role silently, with the superb Kody Bringman – who played the role in the Balagan production, and has been the go-to guy for sensitive bad boys from Gabe to Andrew Jackson (of BLOODY BLOODY fame) to Eddie in ArtsWest’s DOGFIGHT – singing it from a clearly visible spot upstage. The effect was perfect for the character, and the singing superb as always. If you see the show next weekend, Tarabini should be back in his full power – though power was not something his silent, seductive, muscular on-stage presence lacked at all.
Aaron Howland had the challenge, not always met by others, of making the two doctors, Fine and Madden, seem thoroughly different while frustratingly the same. To do so, his Doctor Fine may have been on the tamer side of those I’ve seen, but that left room for contrast with the “rock-star” Madden, who gets far more stage time. 
If I have any reservations about the production, they are all imposed by SSR’s performance space. The sound, especially with regard to mixing and clarity, can be a challenge; occasionally vocals were swallowed by the instruments. Even in the band, the mix was problematic: one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Tom Kitt scores and orchestration is the mix of powerful rock sounds with lush strings, and it was often difficult to pick out the violin and cello, or to hear them as more than thin buzzing. 
The shallowness of both the floor-level stage and the audience seating rake meant that it was often difficult to see much more than upper bodies through the heads in the row ahead, and that limited the impact of the physicality of the show in places, including the sandwich-making frenzy of the opening scene. Also, the use of the two-level set with the house frame and pitched roof line (as compared to Balagan’s flat deep stage and Broadway’s and the tour’s three-level set) meant that some locations that were not in the house, such as the music practice room, seemed to be upstairs in the house. 
And I wish that for the end of “Light,” there was lots more light.
But these are quibbles; the show is rich with fine performances and thoughtful directorial choices that make it a thrilling emotional roller coaster ride and a spectacularly rewarding two-and-a-half hours. See it.
If you’re not my theatre-writer friend, that is.

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