“Everything is perfect; nothing’s real.” A complex tale of mental illness and a family on the brink becomes the latest entry in the stellar Broadway Center State series at the Kennedy Center as “Next to Normal” takes the Eisenhower Auditorium stage. Not only does this musical boast some haunting and complex melodies, but this production also has the cast to do it justice.
“Next to Normal” is the story of the Goodman family; on the surface a normal family like any other. But when you look closer, there are secrets everywhere. Beautiful wife and mother Diana (Tony, Emmy, and Grammy award winning actress Rachel Bay Jones) seems fine on the surface, but within moments is frantically making sandwiches on the floor. Her loving husband Dan (Tony and Drama Desk award winner Brandon Victor Dixon) regards his wife patiently, but the years of pushing his emotions down have begun to take a toll. Daughter Natalie (Maia Reficco), straight A student and piano prodigy’s overachieving persona is ready to crack. And son Gabe (Khamary Rose) holds the biggest secret of them all.
This show not only navigates Diana’s mental illness, but also the effect (both past and present) it has upon her family. Henry (Ben Levi Ross), a classmate of Natalie’s, tries to help her loosen up, and two doctors try to help Diana navigate her illness (both played by Grammy and multiple Emmy award winner, Michael Park). However, if any of them are going to be able to move forward, they must confront the very real pain and anguish at the root of the fracture within their family. Will they be able to survive?
This show is a part of the Broadway Center Stage series presented by The Kennedy Center, which has become a hot ticket for Broadway talent outside of the great white way. These shows are billed as “semi-staged,” and shows in the past have had more simple sets, limited costume changes, and the actors have sometimes used binders with lines and music. However, this production, without having that title attached to it, you would never know it. It was polished from start to finish, visually stunning, and vocal perfection throughout.
The show begins with an introduction to the Goodman family, who are living “Just Another Day.” Tom Kitt’s intricate harmonies are put on display straight out of the gate, and this cast is more than up to the challenge. Bay Jones is able to strike a perfect balance in the opening number to think she’s quirky, at least at first. Bay Jones is no stranger to complex roles and emotional shows- she was a member of the original cast of the juggernaut Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” along with several of her “Next to Normal” castmates. Her real standout number in the first act is “I Miss the Mountains,” which has the folksy 90’s sound reminiscent of singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin. While at first it seems like she is longing for a place, it soon becomes clear through Bay Jones’ emotional performance that instead, she is missing the hills and valleys of feeling before the drugs brought her to a medicated tedium of equilibrium. She imbues Diana with the necessary mixture of vulnerability, comedic timing, and dramatic depth demanded of this complex character.
Dixon also delivers a powerhouse performance, navigating his character’s extreme emotional journey with deftness and care. He is no stranger to playing characters with complicated journeys – he has played Collins in Fox’s “Rent Live,” Judas in NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and Aaron Burr in the musical of the decade “Hamilton.” His performance of “I Am the One (Reprise)” when he finally confronts what he’s lost is both heartbreaking and cathartic. He is also able to strike the incredibly difficult balance of comedy and tragedy throughout the performance.
Reficco, who only has a few minor credits to her name currently, absolutely blew my socks off from the very top of the show. Her belt was dynamite; it made her vocal solos stand out amongst seasoned Broadway veterans, but still blended gorgeously with her castmates in 3 and sometimes even 5 part harmony. She was phenomenal throughout the show, but particularly shined in “Everything Else” and “Maybe” (Next to Normal). She also played well off of the extremely talented Ross, fresh off of playing the titular role in the first national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” after understudying all three young male roles in the original Broadway cast. He imbued this complex story with humor and charm, and the romance between him and Natalie made an interesting juxtaposition with the relationship between Diana and Dan. His performance of “Perfect for You” and the three “Hey”’s was both accomplished and lovely, and he and Reficco played off each other incredibly well.
Rose also struck a dynamic figure as the Goodman son, Gabe. His credits to date are mostly in film and television, but you’d never know it from his vocal performance in this show. His solo song “I’m Alive,” is perhaps the most well- known song in the show was somehow both raw and controlled; savage and exacting. His relationship with Diana is at the very heart of this show, and the two of them hit a home run delivering it. Rounding out the cast is Michael Park, also a member of the original Broadway cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” as well as an alumni of the Broadway Center Stage series at the Kennedy Center (he appeared just last year as Reverend Moore in BCS’s ‘Footloose.’”
He brought an excellent voice and considerable stage presence to the duel roles of Dr. Madden/ Dr. Fine. One of the most comedic moments in the show was his introduction as Dr. Madden, but then he also delivered more serious and somber moments, including presenting some difficult decisions to Diana. His standout moments are in “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling in Act I and the reprise of those numbers in Act II. All in all, this show is incredibly well cast, and the Broadway Center Stage series has proven itself to be an incredible fount of Broadway talent outside of the Big Apple.
As accomplished as the rest of this production was, the technical side should also be mentioned. As I previously mentioned, these semi-staged productions are usually kept fairly basic. Not so in this production. The set was an amazing three-level high warehouse style space, which was able to be adapted to all the different required scenes (Mark Wendland, Scenic Design and Paul Tate dePoo III, Scenic Designer Adaptation.) There was also visually stunning on-stage light pillars that not only provided emotional depth and scenic distinction but also added some depth to a scene where it acted like synapses firing in Diana’s brain (Cory Pattal, Lighting Design.) Finally, the costumes told a deeper story than the audience even realized until the end.
When Diana was off her meds and in the full power of her Bipolar disorder, she was dressed in black and white- symbolizing the dynamic sides of her illness. When on medication, there was a splash of red over her black and white- the illness hidden, but not truly gone. Then after therapy that stabilized her, but stole some of herself as well, she was in gray. It was an incredible thread that was fascinating to catch within the story and helped take Diana’s mental state and journey to another level (Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie.)
Director Michael Greif truly created a masterpiece with this show; it is one of only 3 musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the last 30 years- the other two are “Hamilton,” and “Rent,” which Greif also directed. This production was an honor to his vision. This reviewer ended the show on her feet, with tears streaming down her face; that is the power of this show and this cast.
Running Time: Approximately 2 ½ hours with one 15-minute intermission.
***Advisory: This show has smoke and flashing light effects that could trigger people with asthma and/or epilepsy. Trigger Warning: there is heavy focus on mental illness, electroshock therapy, and a suicide attempt in this show. Audiences are advised. Due to sexual situations and adult language, this show is not recommended for audiences under 16.
“Next to Normal” is playing now through Monday, February 3rd at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Auditorium. For more information on tickets, please click here.
Also, if you are unable to make this performance, make sure to catch the next show in the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series, “Bye Bye Birdie,” from April 23-27th, 2020.