The closing show of The Wilbury Theatre Group's fifth season is Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's 2010 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning "Next to Normal" which tackles mental illness. Diana Goodman struggles with mental instability and depression which leaves her husband, Dan and daughter, Natalie to pick up the pieces as she falls apart. Her son, Gabe seems to be the only one holding her together but he has a big problem of his own. The show probes into the mind of a delusional, bipolar mother, taking us on a journey on her manic-depressive up and downs. It examines issues of illness, death and drug abuse. This musical follows the therapeutic path of Diana, encouraged by her long suffering, doting husband, turns to pills, hypnosis and electroshock therapy in the pursuit of personal peace. Their teenage daughter becomes angry with her mother and impatient with her caring boyfriend. Their son's dynamic with the family is unique and the concern of her doctors is very caring about her disease. The Broadway production opened on April 15, 2009, was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, won three and closed on January 16, 2011, running for 733 performances. Not only is this show a poignant drama, it is a vibrant musical. It is a rock opera with ballads and upbeat songs with stirring libretto and lyrics that make you think about the effects mental illness has on the whole family not only the mentally ill person. Director Wendy Overly obtains stunning performances from her multitalented six member cast with dynamite musical direction by Juan Rodriguez. He leads a three piece orchestra and obtains a fabulous harmonic balance between orchestra and cast. Wendy and Juan's expertise leads to a spontaneous standing ovation at the end of this well written contemporary musical that resonates with the audience from start to finish.
Wendy is a superb actress, having reviewed her in several shows including "The Glass Menagerie" but this is the first show I've reviewed her as a director. She is as accomplished a director as she is an actress. Wendy makes her cast delve into these complex characters and achieves fantastic results from them leading to laughter and tears at all the appropriate moments. Wendy went to Kent State with Alice Ripley who originated the role of Diana on Broadway. We meet the Goodman family in "Just Another Day" which shows us Diana's manic behavior at the start of the day. Diana has been through it all including psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, medicine with debilitating side effects as well as suicidal thoughts. Dan tries to cope with things but as Natalie descends into depression at her mother's illness, stealing her pain medication, Gabe seems to control his mother's feelings. When Diana decides to try "Cuckoo's Nest" therapy, electroconvulsive therapy because all else has failed, is when Gabe tries to stop her because he's worried she'll lose her memories. The audience enters Diana's subconscious as they are tormented by her memories, hallucinations, delusions and share in her utter frustration, enduring the highs and lows of her journey. At the end of the show the characters are looking for "A Light in the Darkness", a hope to learn how to cope with things.
This show is high energy from start to finish with amazing performances from a stellar cast. There are also many comic moments including Diana describing Valium as her favorite color. Moira Costigan-Carraher shines as Diana. She runs the gamut of emotions in this role and her voice entrances you all night long in the pretty ballad "I Miss the Mountains" when she is stable with her medications, the gutwrenching "You Don't Know" when Dan wants her to return to the doctor, "How Could I Ever Forget?" after her electroshock treatment and "So Anyway" when she wants to make it on her own. Moira gives the character the emotional depth it needs, capturing the hearts of the appreciative audience. James Fernandes also displays strong acting chops in the role of the long suffering husband who has tried every known method to help his bipolar wife. He displays his strong tenor voice in the opening group number, in "He's Not Here", a powerful poignant number to make Diana realize the loss of a loved one in the past, "Song of Forgetting" where he tries to help her after the ECT, "Better Than Before" where he tries to bring back some of her memories and in the tear jerking "I Am the One" reprise when he finally calls his son by his name. I first reviewed James in "Merrily We Roll Along" back in 2002 and the last time was when he played Enjolras in "Les Miserables" at Company Theatre last summer. He and Moira have excellent chemistry as this married couple.
Playing Natalie is Julia Bartoletti whose performance as this angst filled teenager is astounding. Her voice is mesmerizing in her numbers including "Perfect for You" with her boyfriend, "Superboy and Invisible Girl" when she proclaims her mother has been ignoring her and in the duet with Moira called "Wish I Were Here'' after she trips out on some drugs and can't remember things. Their reconciliation number called "Maybe, Next to Normal" between mother and daughter is tenderly rendered when Diana confesses a secret to Natalie. Andrew Iacovelli is fantastic as Gabe. His strong baritone voice sells all his songs including "I'm Alive" a show stopping emotion packed song, "Dance with You", a tender moment between mother and son that evokes many tears and in "Aftershocks" when he tries to bring back his mother's memories after her shock treatment. Andrew captures the pathos of Gabe and uplifts the audience at the same time. I first reviewed Andrew as the apprentice dentist in "The Good Doctor" back in 2011, showing he can handle comic roles as well as dramatic ones with ease.
Jesse Dufault does a great job as Henry who grows from an immature guy into a sensitive caring one by show's end. His songs include "Perfect For You" when he first tries to date Natalie, the Hey numbers when he keeps trying to reconnect with her and "A Promise" with James where their tell the two women they will stay by their sides no matter what. Jeff Church plays Dr. Fine with horn-rimmed glasses and Dr. Madden whose have opposing treatments to the disease. The first doctor is nerdlike while Madden is more of a rock star. Jeff displays his voice in "My Pscyopharmacologist and I" as Dr. Fine, "Make Up Your Mind", group number and "Seconds and Years" as Dr. Madden assures them some memory loss is normal. Dr. Fine describes his pill regimen as word math problems which is a hoot. Jeff is topnotch as these two physicians. So for a well written, electrifying musical that captures the true emotional impact of mental illness on a family, be sure to catch "Next to Normal" at Wilbury Group. It is definitely not next to normal, it is stupendous and is one of the must see musicals of this spring season.