The Dramateurs Takes on the Challenging NEXT TO NORMAL

by Kelly Thunstrom
The cast of NEXT TO NORMAL at the Barn Playhouse.

The cast of NEXT TO NORMAL at the Barn Playhouse.

When you are leaving a movie or show with your family and friends, you often ask each other if you “liked” what you just saw. It’s impossible to use that terminology with a production such as NEXT TO NORMAL because a rock/pop musical about mental illness cannot really be “liked.” If you want that, there’s a ticket to THE SOUND OF MUSIC or GUYS AND DOLLS with your name on it. What matters is whether the cast effectively evoked empathy from the audience when they saw this family go through the disease full throttle. The answer is a resounding “Yes!” if the tears and standing ovation at the end of opening night were any indication.

The winner of 3 Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, NEXT TO NORMAL is the story of a family in utter turmoil. At the beginning, you don’t get the sense that anything much is wrong, with the 6-member cast singing “Just Another Day.” It’s not until the mother, Diana (Barbara Burke Sherman), begins to make sandwiches on the ground, that you realize that something is very wrong. And it is…she is living (“surviving” is more like it) with bipolar disorder with the help of Doctor Fine and Doctor Madden (both played by Steve Carrasco). Dan (Chris DeMeo) is her loving husband watching helplessly as his wife is in the throes of mental illness. Watching their relationship is a beautiful thing to behold, specifically in “How Could I Ever Forget?” Their daughter, Natalie (Jessica Sharples), tries to hold onto some semblance of normalcy with her new boyfriend, Henry (Jeff Hunsicker), but is in the very real danger of being forgotten by her family. Diana and Dan’s son, Gabe (Justin Damm), is the only one who wants his mother to stay as she is for a reason that will make you gasp.

This cast could not have been a better fit together. With only six cast members, it’s imperative that there not be one weak link. Sherman and DeMeo are outstanding, both on their own and together. In lesser hands, Diana could have been made out to be a caricature, but there is never any threat of overacting in Sherman’s hands. DeMeo is a very nuanced actor; his facial expressions show his pain, particularly at the end. Sharples plays Natalie well as a young girl forced to grow up way too fast in a situation she has no control over. Hunsicker perfectly plays her stoner boyfriend, knowing that he may be the only one who can save Natalie from herself. Carrasco shows his far-reaching range in “Doctor Rock”, where what Diana is seeing and what is actually happening are two different things. And Damm plays Gabe’s desperation at holding his mother back beautifully; his voice was made for rock musicals like this. Another thing I wanted to mention is the lighting design (Tim Bean and Steve DiNenno). The use of color to show what is going on in Diana’s head is extremely effective.

With direction by Steve DiNenno and musical direction by Barbara Newberry and Konnie Stark, NEXT TO NORMAL is a breathtaking production where you will ride a roller coaster of emotions (along with the family). I applaud the Dramateurs for putting on such a challenging piece as this.

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Steve DiNenno
August 23 – September 7, 2013
The Dramateurs, Inc.
at The Barn Playhouse
1600 Christopher St
Jeffersonville, PA 19403


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