Salisbury Press

Thursday, June 4, 2020

THEATER REVIEW Civic's 'Next to Normal' is anything but

Wednesday, May 8, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

"Next To Normal" is certainly not your normal musical.

It defies the conventions of traditional Broadway fare in several ways.

"Next to Normal," through May 19, Civic Theatre of Allentown, has very few spoken words of dialogue. The story is advanced through songs 17 in act one and 20 (including five reprises) in act two, for a total of 37 production numbers.

This is about double the number of songs in a typical musical. "Chicago," for example, has 11 songs in act one and seven songs (with no reprises) in act two, for a total of 17 production numbers.

There is also the matter of the lyrics, or hooks (memorable chorus) of the songs in "Next To Normal." The songs are not readily memorable on first hearing. You probably won't depart the theater humming the tune or singing the lyrics to "Who's Crazy-My Psychopharmacologist and I," to cite a song from act one in "Next To Normal."

The songs, with music written by Tom Kitt, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, are in the rock music genre.

Lyrically, I was reminded of songs from the 1970's singer-songwriter era, those of Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Jimmy Webb, Billy Joel and Elton John (with Bernie Taupin on lyrics).

Musically, I was reminded of the songs of Billy Joel, with lots of arpeggios (keyboard runs). The hit, "A Thousand Miles," a Top 10 hit in 2002, by Vanessa Carlton of Milford, Pike County, kept coming to mind.

"Next To Normal" is really a rock opera, akin to "The Who's Tommy," and extremely challenging to stage.

Director-Choreographer William Sanders, working with music director Justin Brehm, and a six-person rock band, has done masterful work in realizing "Next to Normal" in a production that is more gritty off-Broadway than spiffy Broadway.

The concert performance sense is emphasized by technical director Will Morris, who flanks the stage with functioning metal rock-show light towers. Set designer Jason Sherwood uses minimal set design (a few chairs, a table) and employs three thick large rectangular frames in blues and grays with a sliding back wall that opens to reveal the theater's actual backstage wall.

Sanders is fortunate to have cast actors up to the task of delivering the material.

Janis Greim, as Diane Goodman, the psychologically-troubled wife and mother, creates not only a sympathetic figure, but has a fine soprano register which makes songs, including "I Miss the Mountains," "I Dreamed a Dance" and "So Anyway," if not hummable, then memorable.

Michael Traupman is effective as Dan Goodman, the supportive but somewhat uninformed husband and father, and delivers some of the show's biggest songs, including "He's Not Here," "A Light in the Dark" and "How Could I Ever Forget," the latter two with Greim.

Matthew Meckes, as Gabe Goodman, the son, has some of the show's most energetic songs, including "I'm Alive" and "There's A World."

Kathy Linder, as Natalie Goodman, the daughter, adds some comedic relief, delivering her character's teen-age angst snarkyisms, and is in splendid voice on "Everything Else" and "Maybe (Next to Normal)," the latter with Greim.

Will Morris, as Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, renders a fine "Perfect For You," with Linder.

Brian Foley, in dual roles as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, bolsters several duets and in trios, especially "Seconds and Years" with Greim and Traupman.