‘Next to Normal’ Is Extra Special: A Phantasmagoric Pop Opera

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BY BRUCE APAR

When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

The Armonk Players Present
NEXT TO NORMAL
Book + Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Christine DiTota
Musical Direction by Ricky Romano
Produced by Jeff Rocco + Rod Berro
Through June 9, 2018 (Thursday-Saturday)
Whippoorwill Theatre
19 Whippoorwill Road East
Armonk, New York 10504
Order Tickets on Website
Sponsored by Friends of the North Castle Public Library
Presented by special arrangement with Music Theatre International

Beyond Broadway, there are very few destinations closer to home where local theater-goers can get a great deal seeing a famous Broadway musical performed by top talent. It’s a very short list that begins near the end of the alphabet, with Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford and Yorktown Stage in Yorktown Heights.

After seeing Next to Normal at Whippoorwill Theater in North Castle Library, we now can go to the head of the alphabet by adding Armonk as another destination where Broadway-worthy musical productions can be seen for a song.

The cast of Next to Normal (from left) Jesse Herman as Henry, Anthony Malchar as Gabe, Adam Welsh as Dr. Madden, Christine Gavin as Diane, John Anthony Lopez as Dan, Jess Bulzacchelli as Natalie. Photo by Christine DiBuono

 

 

 

 

 

NxtNormal-Gavin_Welsh-74B3080

Psychiatrist Dr. Madden (Adam Welsh) treats Diane Goodman, but whether he can cure her remains to be seen — and to be sung. Photo by Laura Olivieri

Next to Normal confronts deadly serious themes, focusing on mental health issues and treatment, family tragedy, and despair. Other families have secrets. This family has demons that need to be exorcised, and memories that need to be restored. They sing their way through the pain and the darkness in search of a glimmer of hope for a brighter future.

Barely a minute into this eye-opening, ear-filling show, winner of the prestigious Pulitzer prize for drama, the powerful and poignant story of a middle-class, suburban family at war with itself raises its voice in song, and doesn’t stop to catch its breath until the hopeful finale. You’ll be breathless too, in a constant state of wonderment.

Jess Bulzacchelli (l) as teenager Natalie Goodman is looking for her place in the world and in her family, while trying to make sense of her brother Gabe (Anthony Malchar). Photo by Laura Olivieri

THE EFFECT IS INTOXICATING
The musical is sung almost all the way through, with haunting duets, rhapsodic quartets, uplifting sextets, and the opera technique of recitative. It is a phantasmagoric pop opera, and the effect is intoxicating.

While the music spans a rich variety of styles, from country-western (“I Miss the Mountains”) to ballad (“Maybe”) to pop anthem (“I’m Alive”) to semi-gospel (“Light”), it wouldn’t hold us in thrall as it does without the uniformly superb vocal talent and actors that stage magician Christine DiTota has masterfully directed: Christine Gavin as Diana Goodman, the mentally distraught matriarch of the family, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and John Anthony Lopez as her suffering husband Dan anchor bravura performances, supported by Jess Bulzacchelli as alienated teen daughter Natalie; Anthony Malchar as illusive son Gabriel; Jesse Herman as Natalie’s earnest boyfriend Henry; Adam Welsh as Dr. Madden.

The family that brays together strays together, as acted out by the distraught Goodmans (Anthony Malchar, Christine Gavin, John Anthony Lopez). Photo by Laura Olivieri

The score, by turns energizing and heart-rending, earned a Tony Award for Armonk native Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics). They skillfully invest the story with multiple shades of emotional urgency: longing, compassion, pleas for understanding, redemption.

Dan Goodman (John Anthony Lopez) tries valiantly to cope with the bipolar disorder of his wife Diane (Christine Gavin). Photo by Laura Olivieri

THIS MUSICAL HAS STREET CRED
It is a prolific playlist of songs, boldly original in invention, sprinkled with some echoes, in my head at least, of Rent and Spring Awakening. Not a bad lineage, but Next to Normal has earned its own street cred as a vanguard example of the modern, post-Sondheim musical. (Of course, Sondheim is sui generis, so no genre compares to him as much as it simply exists before, during, or after him.)

Under the baton of virtuoso musical director Ricky Romano (keyboards), the six-piece orchestra, all in view upstage except for drums, sounded twice the size, filling the hall with sonic sweep. On violin is Linda Finegan; cello, Patricia Santos; guitars, Andrew Aldous (nephew of Tom Kitt); bass, Alan Lounsbury; drums, Taylor Simpson.

The efficient, expressionistic set designed by Anne Nisenholtz, David Morabito and Keith DiBuono is multi-level. The mood-enhancing lighting is by Adam Welsh, who also plays Dr. Madden. Photo by Laura Olivieri

The multi-level set is marvelously designed by Anne Nisenholtz, David Morabito and Keith DiBuono. They have created a functional yet simple space that supports stage movements choreographed with cinematic fluidity. The cast is in a constant state of kinetic activity, and has to interact like clockwork. Expressionist stage design is used to depict the Goodman home, in a style that might be called industrial chic – there are rectangular shapes to suggest windows, minimalist metal illuminated frames for the house outline, several sets of stairs leading to bare, loft-like platforms, and a kitchen table that neatly slides in and out of view as needed.

There’s something different about Gabe (Anthony Malchar) that is hard to see through until it’s revealed to the audience, with a gasp. Photo by Laura Olivieri

FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS
Guided by sure and swift hand of theater veteran Ms. DiTota, an outstanding actor and singer herself, this cast pulls out all the stops, so fasten your seat belts.

The audience is treated to a beautiful blend of versatile voices that can soar, soothe, serenade, or cut to the bone with raw emotion.

The deep emotional commitment that is palpable in each actor pulls us into their extended family, and makes us care. As much as that can precipitate moments of moisture that call for having Kleenex close by, it also lets us see the “Light” that is celebrated in the end.

What’s with all the red? Sorry, no spoilers here. Read the whole review! Photo by Laura Olivieri

The ultimate message we are left with is one of love, compassion and strength, themes conveyed boldly in the uniform color of red worn by the characters at final curtain. 

There’s only three performances left, so if you’re into au courant Broadway, without having to always literally go to Broadway, get tickets by clicking here now for what after one weekend has become the talk of the town. 

Teenagers in puppy love: Natalie Goodman (Jess Bulzacchelli) and Henry (Jess Herman). Photo by Laura Olivieri


ADDITIONAL TECHNICAL CREDITS
Lighting by Adam Welsh 

Costumes by Anne Nisenholtz, Kathy Hammond
Sound by Dan Scherer
Props by Phyllis Sederbaum, Vivien Cord
Stage Managed by Angela Garofolo


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

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