NEXT TO NORMAL is Next to Perfect at The Eagle Theatre

by Jack Shaw

Having just seen The Eagle Theatre production of NEXT TO NORMAL, I know a beautiful diamond when I see it. The Eagle Theatre production is flawless. While the topic of mental illness sounds depressing, lively music and witty lyrics present the story.

NEXT TO NORMAL won The Outer Circle Critics’ Award for Best Score off-Broadway. Nominated on Broadway for eleven Tony Awards, it won three for Best Score, Best Orchestration, and a Best Performance by a Leading Lady. It also won a Pulitzer Prize, making it only the 8th musical to win the award. RENT the last Broadway musical to win a Pulitzer and Tony Awards.

Krissy Fraelich, Tim Rinehart in NEXT TO NORMAL. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

Krissy Fraelich, Tim Rinehart in NEXT TO NORMAL. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

Ironically, NEXT TO NORMAL and RENT both made have a similar theme; each deals with fighting a disease where there is little hope of curing, with coping, and the effect that it has on those around the plagued individuals. While RENT deals AIDs and with the immediate world it affects, NEXT TO NORMAL focuses on mental illness and its effect on the world within its scope—our families. There are probably more comparisons to be made, but this show broadens the world that is affected to everyone of us.

In some ways, this rock musical is more a rock “opera” in that it tells the story with few lines, and mostly with music and song. To call this musical a “soap opera” or a typical musical would be an insult. It is a mirror of families everywhere. There is nothing standard or typical here.

NEXT TO NORMAL portrays a realistic look at that struggle, rather than the “crazy” aspect of mental illness. Songs tell the story of a suburban bipolar mom and the effect her struggles with the disorder have on her family. The attempts to alleviate her symptoms alienate her from others as well. This musical is about how we fragile human beings cope with personal loss. In this case, grieving the loss of a loved one. The telling of the story transforms the drama and reality of living and coping with mental illness to something we can synthesize; the play is beautiful in its music and song, gentle in its handling.

While our perceptions of mental illness and our naivety in its treatment come under scrutiny, so do the psychiatrists and psychotherapists’ ethics in their specific treatments of the Bipolar Disorder with drugs, electric shock and psychotherapy.

Using a two-level stage, with an inside staircase on one side and an outside staircase on the other, Director Ed Corsi sets up compelling images and dynamic portrayals in song, fixing our eyes and ears on what is important. Chris Miller’s psychedelic, multi-colored lighting is striking, without going over the top. Miller also created the perfectly balanced two-story scene design. David Pierron’s sound is impressive, too.

Will Connell and Jordan O' Brien in The Eagle Theatre's production of NEXT TO NORMAL. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

Will Connell and Jordan O’ Brien in The Eagle Theatre’s production of NEXT TO NORMAL. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

The NEXT TO NORMAL cast is, of course, phenomenal. The cast’s uncanny comic timing matches their musical and acting talent; their brilliant application of their art is what that makes this production of NEXT TO NORMAL so easy to identify with. The actors play their characters realistically, but with both humor and sensitivity to the subject of mental illness.

Each actor is amazing in his or her own role(s).

Krissy Fraelich plays “Diana Goodman” so realistically you can’t imagine anyone else in the role, and Brian Bortnick is equally believable as “Dan Goodman,” the husband and father trying to help his wife, thus saving his family;” Jordan O’Brien nails “Natalie,” the broken teen, as Will Connell gives depth of true change to her boyfriend “stoner” in “Henry.” Adam Hoyak adds beautifully to nearly every scene with his portrait of a first child and an older son, “Gabe Goodman,” the “memory” of which haunts both father and mother/husband and wife. Tim Rinehart aptly applies his comedic talent in playing two roles, “Dr. Fine” and “Dr. Madden,” with panache.

The musical night is emotional, delicate, and wonderfully entertaining. A teary-eyed audience gave the cast a much-deserved standing ovation.

NEXT TO NORMAL at The Eagle Theatre is a must-see event. Prepare to smile, sigh, laugh and cry as the show demonstrates the delicate humanity that is in all of us.

Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Ed Corsi
March 7 – 29, 2014
The Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street – Downtown
Hammonton, NJ 08037


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