Intimacy – the best part of live theatre

Take a story about mental illness and psycho-pharmacology, add a rock musical score, throw in some family drama, and a lot of heart and you’ll have “Next to Normal”. (It also won three Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize.)

Southern Rep is about to open it’s take on Next to Normal. I was at the preview this evening, and despite a few technical glitches of the type that sometimes appear during previews, it was an enjoyable evening.

I was curious to see it, because I saw the Broadway touring version (with original cast member Alice Ripley in the starring role) in San Francisco two years ago, and I wondered how it would work in a smaller house.  There’s no question that it’s been scaled back a bit for the CAC.  The Broadway version had a bit of a rock concert aura to it, with it’s three-story set and on-stage band. Southern Rep’s production uses it’s space pretty well, with a split-level main and two wings. I did miss having the musicians on stage, it really adds some presence, but given space constraints, I can understand the decision.

What was lost in spectacle, however, was made up for in intimacy. Despite it’s rock-tinged songs, it’s a show that carries a lot of emotion and that really came through in this performance. Leslie Castay’s Diana leads a cast of strong singers, and I was especially impressed by Matthew Thompson as Henry, who not only has a nice voice, but was able to make himself heard despite being under-miked.

Actually, the decision to mike the performers is problematic. On the one hand, the rock score invites rock performances, and so it seems logical. On the other hand, the CAC is not a large space, and I had no trouble hearing performers 90% of the time. Because the speakers were at the far corners of the stage, it was easy to tell when I was hearing the voices directly and when it was coming through the sound system. To me, they sounded better without it.

Mostly, though, I loved sitting close, not 30-some rows back as I had in San Francisco.   I could see the emotion in the actors’ faces and hear it in their voices, and that’s what I love about live theatre. The rest of the audience experienced it too, as I could hear them tear up along with me.

The emotion in Next to Normal never feels false. Each of the characters has been through an experience that has left them wounded. The plot follows the breakdown of Diana, wife of Dan and mother to Natalie. Diana has been wrestling for years with the loss of a child, and the rest of the family has had to cope with her emotional absence. The show’s realistic take on mental illness, psych meds, overcompensation, and acting out are all realistic and ring true. It’s a rare thing in a musical, where songs are often used to fill in the emotions that are only hinted at in the plot.

If the Broadway version was arena rock, this is more like a solid set from a local band. Much more intimate and moving. Recommended.


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