Studio Theatre Worcester presents haunting, engaging musical examining mental health – Worcester Telegram

Studio Theatre Worcester presents haunting, engaging musical examining mental health – Worcester Telegram

“Maybe we can’t be okay but maybe we’re tough and we’ll try anyway.”
WORCESTER — Studio Theatre Worcester receives a positive diagnosis for its staging of the powerful musical, “Next to Normal,” continuing a solid brand established by the group’s mission statement to offer the Worcester community productions of “high-quality theatrical works.”
The musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, has been lauded as a “dark,” depressing” or even an “angsty” musical.
It is none of those things – although “angsty” does merit some consideration.
It is more an unambiguous musical — a blatant, honest depiction of a troubled family trying to work its way out of a tangled web of dysfunction, one woven by a bad mixture of mental illness, misery and medicine.
Also, if one wanted to try to put a visible blueprint of a troubled mind on stage, it would probably look a lot like the set of “Next to Normal.” You feel like you are literally looking at the mind of an unsettled individual or at least how they see their life on a troubled day by troubled day basis.
Meet the Goodmans: Dan and Diana (portrayed by Brandon Lee and Barbara Kessler) and their teenage daughter, Natalie (Cassie Donegan).
Right off the bat, it should be emphasized that all three actors give thoughtful, sensitive portrayals of their characters who contend with Diana’s ongoing mental health crisis — a crisis connected to a bipolar diagnosis and manifesting itself in the human form of the couple’s first son, Gabe (Michael Skrzek).
But in Yorkey’s story, the impression the character of ghostly Gabe gives is one that spans from departed devoted son to devious demon and every cliché in between.
So, is Gabe malevolent spirit or merely the result of overmedicating a malignant condition?
That is the question the musical seems to want to dance around and certainly does as the show progresses.
Lee gives an astute portrayal of the paternal Dan, trying desperately to keep his family together. Yet the show tends to make him appear more like the cruise ship director of the Titanic trying to keep everybody calm long after the iceberg hit and the dance band drowned.
Kessler and Donegan both are simply (pardon the pun) “electrifying” as mother and daughter and nail each and every musical moment. Donegan, especially, has a natural comedic flair for the character of Natalie and that occasionally tends to go missing in other portrayals.
Skrzek is absolutely riveting as Gabe and whenever he exits the stage, for long moments at a time, the anticipation for his impending “return” is fierce. His rendition of the song “I’m Alive” is intensely captivating.
With all its merits, “Next to Normal” is not a show that will appeal to everyone. It is not a “feel good” musical and many of the subplots contained in the show never fully get resolved.
However, that isn’t the intent, either. The intent is to keep the discussion ongoing long after you leave the theater — and this is where the show and the STW production ultimately succeed.
In the show’s program, there are no less than seven pages devoted to the subject of bipolar disorder, mental health statistics, important terminology explanations and valuable medical resources for anyone who might require them.
The efforts prove that this is one area theater that, at least for the purpose of the important medical subject matter contained within “Next to Normal,” recognizes a high degree of social responsibility.
John Wayland Somers’ finely tuned stage direction for “Next to Normal” is enhanced by a phenomenally creative set by Technical Designer David N. Farreh appearing to work almost in perfect unison.
The blocking choices by Somers help drive the show, moving fluidly from scene to scene, moment to moment, from beginning to end. Any down time for set redressing was minimal.
Adding to the show’s success musically are the efforts by Music Director Kris Layton and the Next to Normal Band.
There was one section of Farreh’s stage (upper level, stage right) that had a noticeable illuminating dead spot. Anyone singing in that one spot was in near total darkness.
Also, the band had a tendency to overpower some of the individual performers and, at the start of Act Two with the song “Wish I Were Here,” all but drowned out all the actors singing on stage.
“Next to Normal” is intense, visceral musical entertainment that succeeds in engaging, enlightening, entertaining and informing all who are fortunate enough to attend.
The musical is approximately two hours, with one intermission.
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Music by Tom Kitt. Directed by John Wayland Somers. Music Direction by Kris Layton. Additional Choreography by Kim Bourassa.
Presented by Studio Theatre Worcester, at the Salem Covenant Church, 215 Mountain St., Worcester7:30 p.m. June 18, 24, 27; 2 p.m. June 19 and 26. Tickets, $25; studiotheatreworcester.org/tickets
Cast includes: Barbara Kessler, Brandon Lee, Cassie Donegan, Cristiano Lourenco Jr., Michael Skrzek and Ben Huu.

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