Review : 'Next to Normal' by Two Planks Theater Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

Two Planks Theater Company (TPTC) is named for the boards that fourteenth century troubadours would lay over their wagons to create the stages on which they brought their stories to life. David and Susan Halliwell founded the group decades ago and it has brought stories to life in various locations throughout southern CT. The United Methodist Church of Monroe hosts their inaugural 2014-2015 Main Stage season, a beautiful church in a residential neighborhood in Monroe where the company looks forward to holding many future performances. 

For their first regular season of shows, they aimed high and chose 'The Glass Menagerie' and 'Next to Normal,' the Pulitzer-Prize winning rock musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt. Friday evening was opening night and the wonderful cast that director/producer Ms. Halliwell had assembled proved that they were up to the challenge. 

'Next to Normal' tells the emotion-filled story of a mother, Diana Goodman, who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. The musical score is soaring, the action is riveting, and the whole thing is exhausting. Exhausting for the actors and pit musicians, as well as the audience, but so worth the energy required of us all. 

This production features two actors that reprise their roles from the outstanding 'Next to Normal' that ran at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts last summer. Juliette Garrison Koch once again takes on the lead role of Diana and Chuck Stango also makes his Two Planks Theater debut in the role of her husband Dan Goodman.

Pictured: The cast of 'Next to Normal' (from left) Robert Thomas Halliwell, Chuck Stango, Juliette Garrison Koch, Maren Burling, Ryan Gaynor and John Capasso. Photo courtesy of Two Planks Theater Company 

Pictured: The cast of 'Next to Normal' (from left) Robert Thomas Halliwell, Chuck Stango, Juliette Garrison Koch, Maren Burling, Ryan Gaynor and John Capasso. Photo courtesy of Two Planks Theater Company 

Mr. Stango, who has always been a gifted comedic actor, once again proved that he has what it takes for this dramatic role that requires a strong singer. His performance as Diana' caring husband was even stronger in this production (if that is even possible) and his vocals on "He's Not Here" and "I Am the One" were highlights. 

Ms. Koch also brought Diana to a new level in this production and I couldn't take my eyes off her as she wrestled the difficult life of her character on the stage. As she sang the musical numbers at this performance, I was struck by what a fabulous singer she   truly is and I was so glad that I had made the time to see the costars once again. Mr. Stango credits the talented community theater actress (and her real-life husband and the show's musical director Dan Koch) with "convincing me to go on this journey again." I am very glad that they did so and I was honored to watch the opening night performance seated next to the three most important ladies in his life, his wife Melissa and daughters Katie and Lauren.

Monroe resident John Capasso returned to the stage after a 35 year hiatus to play the role of Diana's doctors. While his performance was a little uneven, this singer did an excellent job with his vocals. Ryan Gaynor, a junior at Masuk HS in Monroe, has been involved in theater since age 11. He was very effective in the role of the boyfriend named Henry and sang nicely. Robert Thomas Halliwell also was a wonderful singer in the role of Diana's son Gabe; he rocked out on "I'm Alive" and brought it down well for his quieter moments. 

I recognized Maren Burling from her performance as Cinderella in Chase Collegiate School's production of 'Into the Woods.' Ms. Burling is currently a senior at the Waterbury school and will attend Bucknell University in the fall. She was a standout in the role of the daughter Natalie. A strong actress and excellent vocalist, this young actress brought a bit of gentleness to the role that was effective. 

Dan Koch was the music director/conductor of one of the most amazing small bands I have heard in any pit. Laurel Pistey was on cello, Chris Cavaliere was fantastic on guitars, Charles Casimiro played bass, Jon Churchill covered percussion and drums and Mr. Koch showed his amazing talent on the keyboard. Kudos to this group of   musicians for making the score sound better than ever.

The two-level set, designed by Brooke Buring, was sparse and dark but it worked well for the small space. Lighting by Rob Primorac was usually effective and at times the sound was just a bit too loud, even for the rock score.   Ms. Halliwell was in charge of the appropriate costumes and Judy Abbatiello served as choreographer. 

This was the fourth time that I have attended a production of this show but parts of it continue to feel like they were new. Such is the power of this well-written drama and challenging score. Congratulations to everyone involved in this production in Monroe that brings "a light in the dark" and sheds a light on mental illness and the effects it has on families. If you missed the show in Brookfield, I highly recommend that you head to Monroe to experience the ultimately uplifting musical. 

'Next to Normal' continues Sunday, May 24 at 5:00 p.m., Saturday, Saturday, May 30 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, May 31 at 5:00 p.m. General admission with tickets at $20. Performances held at UMC Monroe, 515 Cutlers Farm Road in Monroe.