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‘Next to Normal’ Is Alive at the Queens Road Barn

Theatre Charlotte production runs through May 26

The cast of Theatre Charlotte's 'Next to Normal.'
The cast of Theatre Charlotte’s ‘Next to Normal.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

July 4, December 7, September 11 and October 7 are all dates we remember for their historic meaning to the nation and the world. A similar earthshaking significance can descend on a single day in the life of a relationship, a marriage, or a family that can reverberate for generations — whether or not you were at the event or even alive at the time.

That’s essentially what we’re watching in Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal, which features music by Tom Kitt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 plus Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Orchestrations the previous year. 

Instead of doing things the traditional way, setting up the location and the situation in a big opening number that stages or recaps the prime catastrophe, Yorkey fast-forwards us more than 17 years, by which time the original hurt in the Goodman family has marinated and metastasized — a fissionable maelstrom that will soon explode … with a fresh set of seismic events.

Diana is at the vortex of the mushrooming crises, so it’s both interesting and wickedly deceptive that Yorkey brings us into her drugged and delusional mind for much of the opening action. We still see the basic outlines of the family turmoil clearly enough. 

Her husband, Dan, keeps trying to go with the flow of Diana’s mood swings, as she’s suffering from worsening bipolar disorder. She navigates a series of therapists looking for either a therapeutic epiphany or the perfectly calibrated cocktail of meds.

Meanwhile, Diana’s teen daughter Natalie feels neglected and unappreciated, living in the shadow of her mom’s obsessive devotion to her older brother Gabe. Warily, Natalie navigates her self-worth issues as schoolmate Henry tries to get closer and establish a relationship. When Natalie overcomes her shame and allows Henry, after much hesitation, to meet her family, we seem to have arrived at a breakthrough.

The Goodmans: Johnny Hohenstein as Dan and Melissa Cook as Diana (foreground), Cornelia Barnwell as Natalie and Joey Rising as Gabe
The Goodmans: Johnny Hohenstein as Dan and Melissa Cook as Diana (foreground), Cornelia Barnwell as Natalie and Zach Linick as Henry. (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

It’s a brave move and all goes swimmingly at the Goodman dinner table between Natalie and Henry until Diana walks in with a birthday cake, all smiles, candles lit. Yorkey’s sleight-of-hand has worked so beautifully that we wonder which of the two teens is the target of the birthday surprise. 

Suddenly things are going downhill — off a high cliff, like we’ve been overdosing on the meds so far.

Yorkey is very good at these slow build-ups, where we see budding new hopes dashed by a sudden disappointment and fresh Diana relapses. After portraying Dan, the long-suffering husband in Queen City Theatre Company’s fine production in 2013, Billy Ensley takes the reins at Theatre Charlotte’s slightly slicker version, which runs at the Queens Road barn through May 26

His grimly stoical suffering was much different from Johnny Hohenstein’s unfiltered and uncontrolled anguish. It’s easier to breathe at the old barn when emotions get a space to release.

On the other hand, the Broadway edition starring Alice Ripley in 2009 (which toured here with Ripley in 2011) took a dimmer, more skeptical view of psychiatry and pharmacology, giving those productions directed by Michael Greif a darker, satirical, mad scientist edge. 

Around the corner from a cluster of medical centers and hospitals, Josh Webb’s set design on Queens Road is easily the brightest and most antiseptic I’ve seen. The usual two-story scaffolding that adorns rock operas is outfitted with colorful fluorescent lighting, though some flickering occasionally marred the serene pastels (intentionally?) inside the translucent fixtures.

So in transit to Charlotte, the emphasis continues to shift more emphatically away from the quackery to the suffering. Hohenstein’s broadened performance now rivals Melissa Cook’s bipolarity as Diana, for he’s still a domesticated dad to Natalie and a cheerful host to Henry between bouts of stressing and losing it in private and with his wife. 

Melissa Cook as Diana in ‘Next to Normal.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

In its fits and starts, Hohenstein helps us to balance the toll mental illness takes on its victims and on their loved ones. Easily the best of Hohenstein that I’ve seen and the most intensely consistent performance of the night.

Cook’s performance as Diana is as genuine and riveting as any I’ve seen in Charlotte or on Broadway — except when it isn’t. Whether you call it resistance or retreat, there are whole songs where she is suddenly no longer a cri-de-coeur rock singer and becomes a more traditional Broadway belter — a sweeter voice with noticeably less emotion and intelligibility. Suddenly, it isn’t about how sensationally Cook is acting but about the singing, likely more in her comfort zone.

I can’t say for certain that the duality was there from the start, but there should be no turning back after the big birthday reveal.

And the words here are important — I could almost hear Ensley stressing this at rehearsals — for we get the best sound in a musical production, local or touring company since MJ stormed the Belk last September. Kudos to Ensley for his pertinacity and, if there was any acoustic work or equipment upgrades in the mojo, glory to the staffers involved in the push, beginning with artistic director Chris Timmons and managing director Scot P J MacDonald. The old barn is sounding better than ever.

It needed to. In contrast with Spirit Square’s more intimate Duke Energy Theater, the since-razed venue where Glenn Griffin directed Normal, a musical on Queens Road requires ample decibels to reach the back of the house. Keeping with Theatre Charlotte wisdom, music director Ellen Robison trims her rock band to six musicians while placing them behind the singers.

Instinctively, Ensley finds a perfect pathway for his cast to turn up the volume. As if inspired by grand opera, he dials up the melodrama past suburban proportions so that most of the characters are wearing their hearts on their sleeves. 

Melissa Cook (left) and Craig Allen in 'Next to Normal.'
Melissa Cook (left) and Craig Allen in ‘Next to Normal.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Craig Allen as Drs. Madden and Fine, allows himself to be callous and ghoulish for the blink of an eye when the script absolutely demands it. Otherwise, he is the throbbing soul of earnest concern — moonlighting as a rock star in Diana’s delusions.

As Natalie, the lonely only daughter, I found Cornelia Barnwell to be more shut-down and compulsive than Abby Corrigan was on her express route to stardom in 2013. Barnwell’s voice is purest rock, piercing as a poignard with no blade. 

She seems to be the studious type in her scenes at school or alone with Henry, but she can flip and go rogue as soon as she sings. Very appropriate for Natalie, so anti-meds at the beginning because she has seen the wreck of her mom — before following in her footsteps … at the same upstairs medicine cabinet.

Melissa Cook as Diana (right) Cornelia Barnwell as Natalie. (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

If a stoner-slacker can be seen as an oasis of calm, then that’s how Zach Linick will appear as Henry, faithfully devoted, non-judgmental, discreetly giving Natalie her space. There aren’t too many laugh-out-loud moments on this bumpy road to tentative stability, but when Natalie, resistant at first to Henry’s weed, leapfrogs him into wanton pill-popping, Linick’s reaction bears watching.

Melodramatic or not, Ensley’s read on Next to Normal is more in tune with our chaotic times than the 2013 original, when Yorkey likely turned to the mad laboratory aspects of pharmacology and electroshock therapy to provide a counterweight to the suffering and gloom. 

Everybody is wronged here, as if the world were all MAGA malcontents, but the uplift and electricity of Kitt’s score have always been there to supply lightning, spirit and zest. Ensley relies on Robison’s band to deliver, and their chemistry with all the suffering Goodmans is fire.

It’s especially white-hot in the stunning performance of Joey Rising as the disembodied Gabe. What a wonderful nuisance he is, impervious to all who ignore him! Over and over, he quashes the best hopes of his mom and dad, and he’s hardly less devastating to our own.

If you find it hard to imagine a mad-scientist horror movie strain in this musical, the chill of hearing Rising’s defiant, jubilant “I’m Alive” will convince you that Yorkey believes devoutly in melodrama after all.

We in the audience become like the frenzied villagers in Frankenstein, collectively yearning for Gabe’s destruction while wondering at Rising’s fire. But after he beats a full retreat, he returns, fierier than before — and then he multiplies!

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