Tantrum Theater’s Riotous, Devastating ‘Next to Normal’ Runs through July 29
From the moment it premiered Off-Broadway in 2008, Next to Normal was special. Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey’s (book and lyrics) leaped to the front of the pack of sophisticated musicals that grapple with serious, adult themes. It’s also one of the finest examples of the even rarer group (still) of stage musicals that integrate the volume, intensity, and jaggedness of rock with the precision and delicate intricacy Broadway audiences crave in a way that doesn’t cheapen either side of the equation. Tantrum Theater closes their 2018 summer season with a near-perfect production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming.
The Goodman family struggles to keep it together and grow, teetering on the precipice of the abyss, always a wrong step away from falling and breaking, in Next to Normal. Spectres of the science of treating mental health that’s more art than science, memory’s ability to be both Mephistopheles and torturer, the sheer work involved in being a human being and trying to love others, and the Anna Karenina line that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, tint and hang shadows over the Goodman house.
That house (and the limited appearances of hospitals, doctor’s offices, school rehearsal rooms) is a dazzling multi-tiered set designed by Jason Ardizzone-West. The set pulls starts as a parody of ’60s high-modernism with the white walls of an art gallery and opens into boxes-within-boxes. It nails the tricky dance of functionality – a vast, eye-catching canvas for Fleming and the actors’ wildest flights of dancing and drama, holding characters and the band – and feeling appropriately suffocating.
The center of gravity in the family is Diana (Kelsey Ventner), over a decade into a bipolar diagnosis where the treatment – with both Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden (Travis Kent) never seems to align with the full life she craves. Diana Goodman is one of the finest tragic heroes of the modern stage. Venter’s Diana is heartbreaking and singular and surprising and visceral; she breathes through the rich material. The Platonic love triangle between Diana, her doctor, and her husband vibrates with heat and ambiguity.
Ventner makes the most out of wrenching anthems like “I Miss the Mountains” but she shines brightest on songs where Diana’s voice overlaps, parallels and complicates the voices of her children. The uncanny harmonies achieved as they overlap on different levels of the stage are so precise without being too clean they send a shiver through the audience and underline how related these characters are.
That glinting, harmonic quality stands out most in relief with Bradley McKelvey-Askin’s astonishing take on the driven, curious, brilliant, and neglected 16-year-old daughter Natalie through Natalie’s efforts to puzzle out the world. Her climb is buoyed and complicated by her boyfriend Henry (Tyler Tanner). Natalie’s the most natural character to root for and sympathize with here, and McKelvey-Askin’s witty, cutting take is perfect. Tanner’s an excellent foil, charming and sweet, and a distinct personality.
Riley McFarland presents a fascinating, brassy take on the Goodman son Gabe, born 18 years ago and at the point, he should be leaving home, as he digs his heels into the role of instigator and chaos agent. McFarland brings a classic show-biz belter quality to Gabe in the most physical, ferocious version of the character I’ve seen. A tempter, a manipulator, channeling deep hurt into a complicated bravado, but always with enough humanity, he doesn’t turn into a cartoon supervillain.
Diana’s husband, Dan (Marc de la Cruz), is white-knuckling, trying to hold everything together and watching his life increasingly slip through his fingers. It’s not uncommon for the Dan character to disappear into the background, surrounded by these flashier, more intense personalities. It’s a tribute to de la Cruz’s performance that this is the rare production of Next to Normal where I had no hesitation in buying the marriage. This Dan lives in a way I’m not quite used to seeing.
Jordan Cooper’s musical direction and the remarkable band – with special consideration to Zakk Jones’ stinging, clarion-call of an electric guitar, provide the heft and intensity the play needs, aided by Jane Shaw’s clear and three-dimensional sound design. The greatest gift Robert Barry Fleming gives the piece here is not treating it with kid gloves. With such sensitive material, there can be a temptation to play it safe. Fleming and his cast take a physical, visceral approach to these people and this situation.
This beautiful take lets a phenomenal musical shine anew. Tantrum’s Next to Normal is essential viewing on these hot summer days.
Next to Normal runs through July 29 with shows at 7:30 pm Tuesday through Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit tantrumtheater.org