Porthouse’s marvelous ‘Next to Normal’ is everything but entertaining
By Bob Abelman
Porthouse Theatre patrons still enchanted by the wonderfully effervescent, welcomingly escapist, highly entertaining production of “Anything Goes” are likely to experience severe vertigo during Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s musical “Next To Normal,” now on stage.
In addition to its multiple 2009 Tony Awards, the show won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize. That year’s Pulitzer for feature writing went to The Washington Post for its haunting story about parents who accidentally kill their children by forgetting them in cars. A Pulitzer in theater suggests a similarly serious, thought-provoking, buzz-killing enterprise.
The musical is about a contemporary American family crippled by mental disease. It offers a portrait of a chronically manic-depressive, delusional mother and how this disease infiltrates and infects her compassionate husband and teenage daughter.
The production, directed by Jim Weaver as if its characters’ lives depended on it, is emotionally gripping from start to finish. So gripping, in fact, that you forget to blink, you forget to breathe, and the sound you hear underscoring the orchestration is the audience’s gasping.
Yorkey’s powerful lyrics manage to expose raw nerve to arctic air. Kitt’s pulsating rock-operatic music, directed by Jonathan Swoboda and played by a superb core of musicians (Wanda Sobieska, Linda Atherton, Jeremey Poparad, Don T. Day and Mell Csicsila) armed largely with string instruments and percussion, works you from the inside out.
And this production of “Next to Normal” offers riveting dramatic performances and outstanding vocals from everyone on stage.
Amy Fritsche is astounding as the mother, Diana. Her every gesture is riddled with manic depression as she goes through the motions of next to normalcy and drags her shell of a self from one attempted medical treatment to another. Her crystal clear voice rocks the Porthouse amphitheater, though Tyler Forbe’s sound design – which tends to mute the music in favor of the vocals during the more rock-driven songs – turns “You Don’t Know” and “Didn’t I See This Movie?” into Karaoke.
Fritsche is surrounded by phenomenal actors and singers who perform as if on tenterhooks, which helps manifest and maintain the high level of tension and heartache that courses through this play.
Thom Christopher Warren is immediately sympathetic as Diana’s husband, Dan, who is desperately trying to keep the family functional. His personal pain is beautifully expressed during the soulful “I’ve Been.”
The incredible Madelaine Vandenberg, as daughter Natalie, captures and communicates all the angst of growing up with a mentally ill mother and preoccupied father. Her pain-ridden rendition of “Superboy and The Invisible Girl” is one of the musical’s highlights, while Andy Donnelly, as Natalie’s sweet and supportive boyfriend Henry, is particularly marvelous in “Perfect For You.”
As the older brother, Gabe, Madison Adams Hagler sidesteps the sinister elements typically bestowed upon the character in favor of the mischievous. This makes Gabe less seductive but it plays well in Hagler’s hands, particularly during the brilliant reprisal of “I’m Alive,” which beautifully captures his impish impulses.
Jim Bray as the two doctors who treat Diana adds yet another level of strong vocals and intriguing characterization to this production.
The scenic design by Patrick Ulrich – an abstract labyrinth composed of transparent levels, steep stairs and pointy edges to represent the family home – gives form to Diana’s delusions, while T.C. Kouyeas, Jr.’s back-lighting adds color to the fluctuating mood states of the dysfunctional family that dwells in it. M.C. Escher-inspired patterns on the floor add to their imbalance.
The assorted pieces and parts of this production fit together beautifully to form an emotionally intense theatrical presentation. Patrons preferring Porthouse’s more entertaining classic fare need not worry: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” will be running from July 26 to August 12.
‘Next to Normal’
WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls
WHEN: Through July 21
TICKETS & INFO: $22 – $40, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 11, 2018.
Lead image: Amy Fritsche as Diana and Thom Christopher Warren as Dan. Photo / Bob Christy