Review: 'Next to Normal' at the Elmwood Playhouse

Kelli Butler

  • OnStage CT/NY Critic

Next to Normal is not a feel-good show. Next to Normal  is a show that, when done right, can change your perception of mental illness and your image of the people who fight it. It can open your eyes to the struggle of loving someone who can't cope with the world as it is. It also is a scathing take-down of the mental health system in the US. 

Thankfully, Elmwood Playhouse's production doesn't just get it right – they get it perfectly. Vocally and dramatically, it is easily one of the strongest casts I have ever seen.

Leading the cast as Diana is Miran Robarts, who lists an impressive amount of operatic work (including Carnegie Hall) in her bio. She draws on immense depths of empathy and drama to produce a realistic view of the troubled mother who can't quite come to terms with her personal tragedies. In fact, she brings enough subtlety to the role than you wonder if Diana wasn't a ticking time bomb all along – her passionate rendition of the show stopping 'I Miss the Mountains' describes a woman who has always had her manic highs and depressive lows. Onstage for almost the full run time of the show, she never faltered in her dramatic commitment (despite being, I can only assume, exhausted!).

Photo by Omar Kozarsky

Photo by Omar Kozarsky

As her husband Dan, Rich Goldstein presents an image of a long suffering man who tries to hold his family together with a desperate veneer of normality. His swings from pretending 'Its gonna be great' to his private breakdowns are both impressive and heartbreaking; his use of vocal dynamics to suggest his mental state is truly impressive. Just as Ms. Robarts gives the insightful performance of someone struggling with mental illness, Mr. Goldstein shows in painful clarity the effect it can have on someone who vows to stay with them, no matter the cost to themselves.

The family is completed by the son, Gabe (Coleman Cummings) and their daughter Natalie (Katie Sondermeyer). Mr. Cummings carefully navigates his role with emotional depth and reality; you almost feel that given the chance, Gabe would leap out and grab the audience himself to insist he should be seen and heard. Ms. Sondermeyer, on the other hand, is a roller-coaster of repressed emotions that swirl far out of her own control, and she chooses very carefully when to let loose vocally to show how quickly Natalie is losing ground mentally. Their powerhouse song 'Superboy and the Invisible Girl' showcases both of these young actors to acclaim.

Rounding out the cast is Alex Martinez as Natalie's boyfriend Henry and  (in my performance May 15) Larry Gabbard as Diana's dual Doctors Fine and Madden. Of the whole cast, Mr. Martinez was the most 'real'. He begins the role almost caricature-ish, but as the show progresses you realize he is the solid ground for Natalie to stand on; he creates a vocal and physical character that is, effectively, a younger Dan, simply waiting to exist. Mr. Gabbard was alternately anger-inducing (medicating Diana into antipathy, or nonchalantly discussing her memory loss with ECT) and hilarious (embracing his 'rock star' persona in Diana's delusions).

Director Deb Failla has elicited an amazing bond in her cast; her direction has pulled out performances that I am sure some of them weren't aware they could give. By using the single-room, two story set (designed by David Julin) to the highest possibilities, she has created a drama that feels both epic and intimate. The musical direction by Tony Bellomy was superb – the singers and the orchestra were linked together without any feeling of waiting on one or the other, and he has guided the cast to some amazing vocal acting. If at times the instrumentation was overpowering, all was forgiven with the next perfect moment.