Review: 'Next to Normal' at the Keegan Theatre

Christian Jost 

  • OnStage Washington D.C. Critic

I’ll admit that I hadn’t ever really appreciated Next to Normal until I had to perform “Just Another Day” for a class project in high school and ever since then I’ve been obsessed with this show. The excellent music by Tom Kitt and the Lyrics/Book by Brian Yorkey are revolutionary in their style, honesty and realism. Next to Normal was one of the first to approach its subject matter, mental illness, in such a way that it educated people about something they couldn’t relate to unless it affected them personally. It also received acclaim from medical professionals about how realistic the illnesses are portrayed as well as how the doctors would go about treating them.

The show follows a middle class family, the Goodmans, as they deal with the mother of the house and her worsening bipolar disorder. Diana’s mental state takes a toll on her entire family, including her husband Dan, her daughter Natalie, and in a way her son Gabe. There are also appearances by Diana’s doctors and Natalie’s love interest, Henry.

 Chad Wheeler and Kari Ginsburg in ”Next to Normal” from The Keegan Theatre. (C. Stanley Photography)

Chad Wheeler and Kari Ginsburg in ”Next to Normal” from The Keegan Theatre. (C. Stanley Photography)

From the moment you walk into the Keegan Theater you feel like you’re part of a community of people who are all there to have fun, just like you. The Keegan, which as far as I can tell was built inside an old church, is a rather small space that allows beverages in the theater and uses a tablet as a box office and it’s a very unique and fun experience. The stage is rather small and very close to the audience, however for this show that was ideal. You got to see every little movement and facial expression from the cast and the intimacy pulls you right into the captivating story. Everyone in attendance talked with one another, was very respectful, and I believe they all had a great time. I kept wishing for a theatre to do Next to Normal in my area so I could witness it and then finally the Keegan mounted an excellent production and I had the pleasure to attend and be completely satisfied. This production was a success due to the cast, the tech, and the direction.

The cast for this production was perfect in every way. Although they all looked different than what I had come to expect from Broadway clips and other videos, I couldn’t imagine watching the show with any other cast after seeing this one. It’s hard to live up to Alice Ripley but Kari Ginsburg sure gave it her best. She excelled with the part of Diana, having the perfect voice and characterization throughout the whole show.

It’s very hard to convincingly play a character that the audience can both love and hate and she pulled it off remarkably well. Chad Wheeler gave an excellent performance as Dan; we see his character’s constant struggle and loss when it comes to his wife and daughter and though you start off not liking him very much, by the end you are heartbroken for him. I had the pleasure of seeing Matthew Hirsh play the role of Gabe on Friday night. Hirsh is the understudy for the role but I wouldn’t have known had I not seen the playbill. He was magnificent and if you know this show then you know how hard that role is to pull off and he did it brilliantly. Scott Ward Abernethy gave a very believable performance, playing Diana’s doctors. Christian Montgomery also played his role of Henry very well and was the one who made me tear up in the second act. Now, when you think Next to Normal you think of the mom as being the star of the show, having all the characters revolve around her.  

At the Keegan however that wasn’t the case. Caroline Dubberly’s portrayal of Natalie stole the show. She went above and beyond when executing this role and everything about her performance was nearly perfect. By the end of the show you walked away thinking Natalie was the lead of this show and justifiably so. The one big thing that impressed me about the cast as a whole was how “in the moment” they all were, it felt as if this was the first time they’d ever done the lines or the blocking and it made the production as a whole feel very real and believable. I hope to one day work with a cast as in sync as this cast was.

This production was co-directed by Colin Smith and Mark. A. Rhea, both doing an excellent job. One of the directing choices I loved was the decision to cast Dan and Diana young, you really felt for both of them by realizing they weren’t even really middle aged yet. That choice also helped set up the depressing similarities and mirroring of Diana and Natalie. The audience realized how close Natalie could be to having this exact same set of illnesses if she has the gene for them, which is more than likely. The music was flawless, both vocal and instrumental, kudos to Jake Null for that. Set/Scenic design, by Carol H. Baker and Matthew Keenan, was another success of this production. From doors that were cut in half, to stairs on the ceiling to a giant shattered glass archway, everything made the show come together.

 Caroline Dubberly in Keegan Theatre’s Next to Normal (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Caroline Dubberly in Keegan Theatre’s Next to Normal (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

The lighting design for this show was also incredible, there was light were there needed to be light, color when color was justified and darkness when the characters needed it. Allan Sean Weeks really did a great job with that. Also there were amazing projections on the glass arch way throughout the whole show, done by G. Ryan Smith that were superb for setting the tones of certain scenes/songs. If I had one technical critique it would be that at times the pit was too loud, you couldn’t hear the seven people on stage belting their lungs out over just a few instruments. I know Next to Normal is a rock musical but it was still at times distracting. Other than those moments, Jake Null, Jaime Ibacache, Deborah Jacobson, Brad Emmett, Manny Arciniega, Alexandra Touzinsky, and Katie Chambers all did fantastic in the pit.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend seeing this show that has just been extended through July 16th. The theatre is unique, the cast is amazing, and the tech is executed perfectly. Also, being located in the heart of the Nation’s Capital, just off Dupont Circle, there are loads of fun things to do before or even after the production is over!