Theater review: ‘Next to Normal,’ at the Courtyard Theater

SELINSGROVE – To their neighbors, they appeared to be just a normal suburban family. Little did they know, that was far from the truth.

A Custom Taylored Production, the rock musical “Next To Normal” will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, at The Courtyard Theater, 1 Susquehanna Valley Mall Drive.

With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, “Next To Normal” was nominated for three Tony Awards and, somewhat suprisingly, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Uniquely structured as a Broadway musical, “Next To Normal” has sparse sets, and more importantly, neither choreography nor an ensemble.

This original work, pushing boundaries and not stooping to the lowest common denominator, focuses upon a mother’s struggles with bipolar disorder and the effects that her advancing mental illness has on her family.

The cast of six includes several dysfunctional family members, in Diana, the mentally ill but charismatic mother; her stoic husband, Dan; cynical daughter, Natalie; and her smart 18-year-old son, Gabe. Other cast members are two doctors who treat Diana and Natalie’s would-be boyfriend.

Having seen “Next To Normal” at Penn State Centre Stage last year, I vowed that there will be no “spoiler alert” regarding Gabe, which would spoil one of the plot’s suprising twists for new audiences – just remember that Diana suffers not only from bipolar disorder, but also from hallucinations.

With a half-dozen reprises, there are nearly three dozen songs in this well rehearsed, extremely well-sung score. It’s a plus that the songs are mostly extensions of the characters and an outpouring of their emotions.

Heading the cast and doubling as music director is Deb Lydon as the vivacious Diana, who runs the gaumet of emotions. Director Bob Taylor effectively plays her husband, fiercely loyal to his wife and family. Abby Martino displays a strong clear voice as Natalie, embarrassed by her parents’ behavior but needing a bit more angst. Jeremy Shaffer is the manipulative Gabe, who has the most attention-grabbing vocals.

With a lighter tonal quality, Kelly Krieger plays Henry, the stoner smitten by Natalie’s overachieving ways, and Zack Sessock plays both physicians, having really funny moments as the rock star psychiatrist.

Running two hours with one intermission, “Next To Normal” is not normal theater fare, but a musical with three-dimensional characters who express honest, raw feelings. With a decent balance between serious drama and elevating humor, “Next To Normal” tackles mature topics using relatable characters. At a very sparsely attended performance last weekend, the audience heartily applauded the musical with such an emotionally affecting story. The production deservedly needs more patrons to support such shows as “Next To Normal.”

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