TCR pairs impeccable vocals with smart little quirks for ‘Next to Normal’

Next to Normal

Theatre Cedar Rapids — Friday, Mar. 11 and Saturday, Mar. 12 at 7:30 p.m.

Tracie Hodina Van Pelt as Diana in 'Next to Normal'
Tracie Hodina Van Pelt as Diana in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Next to Normal.’ Photo by Struttmann Photo.

Next To Normal (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey; music by Tom Kitt) centers around a family, broken by the lingering mental state of the mother figure, Diana. The husband can’t fix her, so stands supportive. The daughter is neglected by her, terrified she’ll end up in a similar situation. The son is, well, everything “right” in Diana’s eyes and, yet, he’s everything wrong at the same time.

The acting in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ current production is well done and the vocals simply impeccable throughout the entire cast. There is a swirling, almost vibrating feeling from the mother and her children, and a stillness (sometimes stoic and distant, other times subtle and sweet) from the others.

The parents in this tale are very well done. Dan (Jonathan Schmidt) is the calm eye of Diana (Tracie Hodina Van Pelt)’s storm, though just as volatile. They are a good match — his stiffness to her wildness. Their relationship is a hard one, however, because as much as the story hinges on her state of mind most of the time, he has also perpetrated an important offense to recognize. We don’t see much about his contribution to the disastrous scenario until much later in the play, and it feels almost glossed over. The show just doesn’t spend enough time on this topic, leaving it to the actor and director to fill in those holes.

Cast members of TCR's 'Next to Normal.' Photo by Struttmann Photo.
Cast members of TCR’s ‘Next to Normal.’ Photo by Struttmann Photo.

The children are also stellar. The son, Gabe (Ian Goodrum), is seldom on the lowest level of the three-story set with his family, allowing his beautiful yet slightly discordant singing to fall on their heads from the attic to the ground. He is the perfect son in so many ways. Again, though, I felt the script needed more here; the relationship with his mother feels underdeveloped as it’s shadowed by the disease almost immediately.

Nikki Stewart as Natalie in 'Next to Normal'
Nikki Stewart as Natalie in TCR’s production of ‘Next to Normal.’ Photo by Struttmann Photos.

Nikki Stewart’s Natalie was completely in-the-moment from jump — so raw and present. All the hope and devastation winds up inside her, constantly uncertain, angry and always yearning to be seen, heard — something. She is, in so many ways, a great strength in the family, but as the story unfolds, we see how the weight of always being second to a diagnosis begins to crush her, just a little bit at a time. Nikki Stewart is a powerhouse of fury and honesty wrapped up in a deceptively adorable package. This girl isn’t a just a star. It’s people like her that keep theatre alive and kicking. She’s part of what’s saving it.

Henry (Steve Goedken) and Drs. Madden and Fine (Alex Anderson) are the only characters not related to the family. They both act as a sort of anchor for the women in the show. Alex Anderson has a great clinical and unfeeling attitude as Dr. Madden, but his second role, Dr. Fine, is very grounded and comforting while he works with Diana and her husband. Henry, Natalie’s sweet stoner boyfriend, is so simple in Steve Goedken’s portrayal of the character, but nuanced and 100% believable. I’m not one to really believe in 16-year-old love, but there was a maturity to the connection between Henry and Natalie, something that really worked and made us root for him the whole time.

The music of this show is delicate and harsh; haunting and incredibly complex. Janelle Lauer’s music direction really brings this show to another level. There is not one note out of joint, from the performers or the musicians. The singing, I mean … FORGET ABOUT IT. Just incredible vocals. This show oozes with the notion that sometimes just saying something isn’t enough to truly communicate an idea. It needs music to help illustrate the truest meaning of an interchange. It is a seventh, fully formed character and you couldn’t find a professional production musically better if you tried.

The set is wonderful. An abstract house, gray and cold. There is slatting instead of solid walls, a simple metaphor for an incomplete home. Something is missing everywhere you look, and, at the same time, everything is exposed. Lighting makes for interesting shadows within the home and wonderful mood swings outside of it. The costumes are muted and any true color really stands out — whether it be the pop of an orange pill bottle in the medicine cabinet or a dress with a fiery design. It made those small vibrancies seem crazy.

The cast of TCR's 'Next to Normal.' Photos by Struttmann Photo.
The cast of TCR’s ‘Next to Normal.’ Photos by Struttmann Photo.

This show could so easily be a melodrama, but it wasn’t. It was real. This important and epic show in lesser directorial hands could have been disastrous, but Angie Toomsen’s staging is simple and perfect; there is always something happening, but not distracting from anything else. It is a true visual balance, imbued with smart little quirks and moments that illustrate much more within the story, without hitting the audience over the head. Toomsen is also able to highlight some of the humor in the piece (yes, actual belly laughs were had!). Repetition can be a wonderful tool, directorially, but I felt there were a couple of missed opportunities; I wanted to see a different tactic or action used when a phrase was repeated, but it didn’t always happen — a very minor gripe.

This is a Pulitzer prize winning show for a reason. It is a reflection of a transforming society, and when told as adeptly as it is in this production, it’s more than just a really good show. It’s art.

You’d have to live under a rock not to know that the debate about mental health is front and center in this country, from its impact on gun laws, to bullying, to, well, just about everything else. We’re really starting to talk about it now. And, in part, it’s due to art like this. Nothing is perfect, but art can often find it’s own closeness to it. And this incredible production is nearly there and far from normal.

Next to Normal is playing at Theatre Cedar Rapids for two more performances this coming Friday and Saturday. Do yourself a favor and get tickets today. It’s important that you see it. Tickets are $24–34. For the Friday, Mar. 11 show, if you enter the code “ABBE” at checkout, a portion of your ticket price will be donated to the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health. On Saturday, Mar. 12, you can enter the code “FOUNDATION2” to similarly support Foundation 2 counseling and crisis center.

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