As Bootless Artworks continues its move toward its permanent venue in Newport, it has taken on one of the most challenging and thought-provoking musicals I know, the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning NEXT TO NORMAL, a show that fearlessly deals with mental illness, grief, and suicide. It’s a tough, emotional show, and it may be strange to think that a show dealing with such heavy issues can also be entertaining with catchy tunes and even bits of humor, but it is.
Bootless presents NEXT TO NORMAL almost as a PSA — there is information about psycho-pharmacology, bipolar disorder, and electroshock treatment in the program and leaflets in the lobby. These are terrific offerings, but don’t let it fool you into thinking that the show is dry and strictly informational. It’s a wonderfully-crafted modern musical; at its heart, it’s a layered story about a family facing issues that are more common than people often think, whether they relate directly or not.
The story centers around a mother, Diana, played by Jennifer Huth, and her daughter, Natalie, played by Valerie Jonkoff. Diana struggles with debilitating depression for which she’s treated aggressively with a cocktail of pills, while Natalie, a brilliant and talented teenager, fades from her mother’s consciousness and finds herself struggling to cope in her own life. Huth and Jonkoff wear their roles like broken-in gloves, delivering characters that are wholly believable while singing beautifully.
Also struggling are the family’s husband and father, Dan, played just as convincingly by Mark Dixon; Diana and Dan’s older son, Gabe, wonderfully played by Corey Buller, and Natalie’s faithful boyfriend, Henry, played by the endearing Daniel Kiernan. Rounding out the cast is John Jerbasi in a dual role as two of Diana’s doctors. There is a twist to the story, which I won’t spoil for readers, but it’s done well.
NEXT TO NORMAL features a live band, which sounded great and never overpowered the singers, aside from a few moments of microphone glitch. The show is almost a rock opera — there are handfuls of non-sung dialogue throughout, but it’s predominantly set to music (there are 37 songs, including reprises).
The set, which uses two levels to represent the upstairs and downstairs of the suburban home, is starkly minimalist and mostly black. This choice keeps the focus on the characters, as the audience is not distracted by a realistic “homey” set. The set, as it is, almost melts away.
This is an important show on an important topic, and Bootless has clearly put their hearts and souls into it. It’s not a show to be missed.
NEXT TO NORMAL
by Brian Yorkey
Music: Tom Kitt
Stage Director: Rosanne DellAversano
Music Director: James W. Fuerst
March 14 – 19, 2013
401 E. Marsh Lane
Newport, DE 19804