The Vagabond Players is in the full swing of its 97th season with Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning rock musical, with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey.
Initially, the play paints itself as a rather mundane, modern family drama—in a word: normal. This façade falls away dramatically in the first act, revealing the familial dysfunction and mental instability that make this piece so poignant and unique. The story centers around the mother, Diana (Shannon Wollman), and her struggle with bipolar disorder, chemical dependency, and delusions. As the play progresses, this internal conflict manifests outwardly, as she becomes increasingly distanced from both her husband (Darren McDonell) and daughter (Julia Capizzi).
…this is a highly topical piece that takes an engagingly unsentimental dive into the underbelly of suburban life.
Under the direction of Eric Potter, the cast delivers some laudable performances. Newcomers Julia Capizzi and Chris Jehnert are vocally superb, while McDonell does a well-rounded and convincing portrayal of a devoted husband in a state of powerless desperation. Jim Baxter is “pretty rad” (his words, not mine) as the daughter’s oddly endearing, pot-smoking, high school boyfriend. Unfortunately, the weight of the production falls on Wollman, whose performance as Diana is somewhat uneven. Her best moments are with her various therapists and pharmacologists, all played capably by Tom Burns.
On opening night, the show was plagued by technical difficulties; it was difficult to hear the actors over the orchestra—even with the use of microphones—and their voices suffered abrupt changes in volume during both scenes and song. This was particularly true of the son (Chris Jehnert)—a pity, since he has one of the strongest singing voices in the cast. One wonders whether, in such an intimate space, amplification is even necessary. Fortunately, this is the sort of issue that will (hopefully) resolve itself over the course of the run.
The costumes (Wil Crowther) give a clear and contemporary sense of character, while the set (Maurice Conn), in its gray-scale symmetry, is functional and cold (“bleak-chic”, if you will), and Charlie Danforth’s lighting design aides the transitions between reality and hallucination.
While most of the big musical numbers occur in the first half, the second act is generally more successful; these intimate scenes (in particular, those between father and child) are less cluttered and more emotionally charged. Despite its imperfections, this is a highly topical piece that takes an engagingly unsentimental dive into the underbelly of suburban life.
Running Time: two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Due to its subject matter and strong language, Next to Normal is recommended for mature audiences only.
Next to Normal is playing through November 25, 2012 at Vagabonds 806 S Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21231. For information call 410-563-9135 and for tickets click here.