Presented by Curtain Call Theatre
Music by Tom Kitt
Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Jim Sullivan
Musical direction by Jose Merlo
Review by Travis Manni
(Braintree, MA) From my own upbringing, I thought I understood the definition of dysfunctional, but nothing could have prepared me for the family dynamic put on display in the rock musical Next to Normal.
In a seemingly normal suburban household, we meet wife and mother, Diana, her husband Dan, and children, Gabe and Natalie. It is clear that Diana isn’t as present as she should be, at one point throwing bread on the floor to make sandwiches, and the amount of attention she gives to her children is unevenly tipped in favor of her son. The strangeness of it doesn’t truly hit until she brings out a birthday cake for the boy and we learn that he has actually been dead for many years.
Diana tries drug therapy, among other forms of treatment, to combat her chronic bipolar disorder, among many other forms of mental illness. As the story unfolded, I was so impressed with how the rock-style format was able to incorporate such themes as mental illness, death and coping with loss. It was a clear homage to the likes of Rent, which also centered around hot-button issues with great respect while also not letting the topics feel contrived.
The small, 100-seat Curtain Call Theatre successfully portrays a suburban household and doctor’s offices with a minimalist approach. Almost all aspects of the set are black, including a raised platform that serves as the bedroom, which allows the audience to focus on the performances. While this worked in favor of some actors, it was not a benefactor to others.
Ann McCoy as the unstable mother struggling to grasp the pieces she has left of her life was both convincing and heartbreaking. She didn’t let the sharp lyrics of the show drown, and her vocal chops were spot on in the moments you’d expect them to be for a rock musical. Meghan Ryan as the disheartened daughter also delivered, though at times pushed too far to stand out rather than work as a cohesive unit among her fellow actors. Bryan Rowell, who plays Natalie’s boyfriend Henry, had a cute boyish charm that adds an outsider’s perspective to the show, though his timid demeanor suggested a lack of commitment to the part.
A time when the minimalistic set worked against the actors was towards the end of act two during a scene shared between father Dan and deceased son Gabe. What should have been touching and conclusive felt haunting and downright creepy. While his singing surpassed my expectations, Sam Patch’s version of Gabe lacked true depth. He was a brooding, possessive spirit that didn’t quite fit with the tone of the show. Steve Perry as Dan was able to deliver, but easily faded into the background among his female co-stars.
Diction was perfect throughout the show, and as someone who’s never seen this musical before, I appreciated being able to clearly understand what was happening at all times. A repetitive occurrence throughout the show that stole away from my enjoyment was the excessive use of disco ball lighting. It was so overused, I started to silently chuckle to myself when it clicked on yet again, usually in a scene that didn’t feel appropriate.
The themes addressed in Next to Normal, death, suicide and mental illness, are handled with the utmost respect. It is a show about love, loss, and shedding the chains from a haunted past. The Curtain Call Theatre’s production meets expectations, but the pieces that comprise it simply aren’t on equal footing.
Next to Normal runs for 2 hours, 30 minutes with an intermission. The Curtain Call Theatre will host performances November 12-14 at 8pm. For tickets, call (781) 356-5113 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.