‘Next to Normal’ tackles family tensions

Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a small cast of students put on a performance of the critically acclaimed rock musical Next to Normal, accompanied by a live pit band. The musical follows the story of the Goodman family, consisting of mother Diana (Sarah Pier ’16), father Dan (Matthew Conway ’15), daughter Natalie (Alex Marshall ’15) and son Gabriel (Mike Vercillo ’14)

Next to Normal debuted on Broadway in 2009, receiving 11 Tony Award nominations and winning three. The musical addresses issues of mental illness, drug abuse, grieving, family dynamics and modern psychiatry. While the original production was staged with a large set across three levels, the production done in Goodrich was smaller and much more intimate. Next to Normal introduces a dysfunctional family, the Goodmans. But it quickly becomes clear that there are much larger issues underneath the surface. One morning while the family has breakfast together, Diana begins to make preparations for lunch. She suddenly has a meltdown, throwing the bread and lunch meat on the floor and making the sandwiches there, only half-aware of her frenzy. Later that day at school, Natalie expresses her frustration with her family in the music room while she practices piano. It is there that she meets the affable stoner Henry (played by Richard Whitney ’16), who attempts to befriend her. Even though she is guarded at first, Natalie warms up to him and they began a romantic relationship.

It is later revealed that Diana has struggled with mental illness for the last 16 years. The doctor (Rebecca Comella ’14) she sees, Dr. Fine, is an apathetic and cold archetype. She prescribes Diana a litany of new medications, which leave Diana emotionally numb. With the encouragement of her son, Diana decides to throw out the medication. However, the source of her psychosis is soon revealed to the audience: Gabe, the son, is dead and has been dead for a long time. His presence exists only within Diana’s hallucinations.

Over the course of the rest of the play, the characters continue to struggle with Diana’s mental illness. Diana is furious that no one understands her. Dan is hopeless and sick of having to deal with her unpredictable behavior. Natalie feels constantly neglected, living in the shadow of her deceased brother’s memory. Diana begins seeing a new doctor, Dr. Madden (also played by Comella), who is far warmer. While Diana admits out loud that it is time to let go of her son, and there are signs she is getting better, she eventually relapses and was hospitalized, devastating the family.

Things only get worse for the Goodmans from then on. All the characters struggle with Diana’s illness and expectedly short-lived recovery, all acting out in self-destructive ways. Even though things spiral downward for the majority of the musical, Next to Normal ends on a hopeful note. What can be taken away from Next to Normal is that recovery from mental illness does not look the same for every person. Even for someone like Diana, who has been struggling for 16 years, recovery is still an option.

The powerful storyline, moving performances by the cast and live pit band made Next to Normal a great production. Even though the musical involves a very sensitive and difficult topic, the cast brought their characters to life. Pier did an excellent job of portraying Diana, making her distant, haunted and hurt, yet hopeful for a better future. She conveyed Diana’s still-fresh heartbreak of losing her son perfectly, especially in scenes when Diana interacts with Gabe, being totally enraptured by his presence in her hallucinations. Vocally, Pier excelled at the slow mournful ballads, and it was easy to tell that she has had some classical training. However, her performances of the faster, angrier and rock-based tunes were weaker, as she strained to sing the songs at the volume and speed required, which unfortunately led to some songs being flat and off-key.

Vercillo, Marshall and Comella also deserve recognition for their excellent portrayals. Vercillo gave life to a character, aking him seem both ghostly and forceful. Mischievous and charming, he made it easy to see the destructiveness of Diana’s hallucinations. Vercillo pulled off a sweet-talking ghost with seemingly innocent intentions and pleas, successful in making the character even more unsettling (in the way a ghost is supposed to be). Marshall excelled at every vocal performance and made a character that could be written off as the typical frustrated, angst-ridden teen into one that was identifiable. Comella switched seamlessly between the roles of the two doctors and added some great, albeit brief, comic relief in her first scene as Dr. Madden. Conway and Whitney also gave strong performances, with Conway expressing Dan’s frustration and the desperation of his wife’s situation and Whitney playing the believably dependable good-guy.

What made the show truly exceptional, however, was the live pit band. Every musical number was more powerful and more emotional with the seamless performance of the band made up of Charlie Volow ‘16 (piano), Chris Janson ‘16 (bass), Isy Abraham-Raveson ‘15 (violin), Dave Burns ‘14 (cello) and Ruby Froom ‘16 (percussion). The music was flawless, moving and added an incredible dimension to the already powerful storyline and performances of the cast.

The great talent of all those involved made Next to Normal an incredible production. The performance, without exaggeration, moved some audience members to tears.