‘Next to Normal’ a next-to-perfect production that should not be missed

By Karen Zuppinger

Weston Playhouse opened its second main stage production of the season with the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and 2009 Tony award winning musical Next to Normal. The story centers around Diana (played by Heidi Blickenstaff), her 18-year struggle with mental illness and its impact on her family. The production is next to perfect, and should not be missed.

Heidi Blickenstaff as Diana listens to her son Gabe, played by Dan DeLuca./Photo provided.

Heidi Blickenstaff as Diana listens to her son Gabe, played by Dan DeLuca./Photo provided.

The play begins with Diana waiting up until the wee hours of the morning for her teenage son Gabe (Dan Deluca), to come home. That’s nothing out of the ordinary from what any “normal” mother might do. But what becomes clear during their brief exchange is Gabe’s foreshadowing of his relationship with his father. “Why does he hate me?” he asks, shortly before the two head off to bed.

The next morning the family gathers in the kitchen before leaving for work and school. They all sing “Just another Day,” with voices blending together as effortlessly as yogurt and berries, mother, father, son, daughter.  It is here that we get the first glimpse into the undoing of Diana’s mind. As her voice crescendos to a fever pitch, she moves from meticulously making sandwiches at the kitchen table to manically building a pyramid of meat and bread in the middle of the floor.

Diana’s husband, Dan, played by strong baritone Aaron Ramey, comes to his wife’s aid. He tells their startled daughter Natalie (played by Margo Seibert) to head off to school and he’ll take care of her mom. This pivotal point results in trips to two psychiatrists, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, who have two different personalities and two different approaches to treatment. Both are played ably and humorously by David Ayers. It is Dr. Madden’s treatment that eventually causes the outcome that Dan has long been trying to avoid.

Seibert’s Natalie is a 21st century teenage archetype:  an overachiever, trying to claw her way out of her older brother’s shadow by being great at everything but finding nothing that fills her up. Henry (Etai BenShlomo) is the boyfriend making every effort to fill that void. He has an uncanny resemblance to Dan, and in many ways his relationship with Natalie parallels that of Dan and Diana — a hero  trying to save a damsel in distress.

Aaron Ramey as Dan and Margo Seibert as Natalie, his troubled daughter.

Aaron Ramey as Dan and Margo Seibert as Natalie, his troubled daughter.

Each character in Next to Normal is a modern archetype: the frustrated housewife, the stoic husband, the golden-boy son, the stoner boyfriend, the crazy psychiatrist, the angst ridden teen. What sets Next to Normal apart is its humane and realistic address of mental illness mixed with the organic richness of its musical score.

Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) have put together rock compilation of 36 songs (including reprisals) that’s on par with the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy and Grease. It’s something to download to your iPod, to listen to over and over again.

Each actor has the voice to match the ambitious score. But the richness of Ramey’s voice is reason enough alone (and maybe this was the case) to cast him in the role of Dan.

DeLuca is also impressive playing high energy Gabe as both a mother’s doting son and a father’s formidable foe. Seibert gives Natalie the right balance of confusion and anger. BenShlomo’s Henry captures youth’s faith in love’s ability to conquer any problem. And Ayers, in his dual doctor roles is so good and different you may find yourself wondering what happened to seventh actor.

But at the end of the day this is Diana’s story, and for Next To Normal to work, Diana has to be strong. At some key moments when she is required to emote, Blickenstaff’s face doesn’t move much. Still she has a voice that is pitch perfect and crystal clear, and a richness of character that is both subtle and defined: You believe her, you root for her and by the time she reaches her final decision, you’ve come to understand her.

The story is strongly supported by the subtle direction and choreography of Michael Berresse. The actors never seemed out of place or their movements awkward. Timothy Mackabee’s set design is a lesson in stylistic restraint. The avocado colored walls lined with empty picture frames serve to reinforce a family unit hollowed out at its core.

Tyler Micoleau’s lighting works well — muted and low in the darker moments, switching to vibrant and pulsating during the “trippy” twists and turns. Jennifer Caprio’s costuming perfectly captures the wardrobe of Middle America. And music director Ryan Fielding Garrett and orchestra deftly handle the outstanding musical score.

Next to Normal continues at the Weston Playhouse through Saturday, July 27.  Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; with matinees at 2 p.m. on Wednesday and Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. The Weston Playhouse is located at 703 Main St. in Weston. 802-824-5288.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts Life

About the Author: Karen Zuppinger in a freelance writer and Chester resident. Her work has appeared in Vermont Magazine and Assisi's Online Journal of Arts and Letters. She is a winner of America's Best Short Fiction Award.

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