The new and improved ‘Next to Normal’ at Center Stage

'Next to Normal' cast against production's transparent backdrop. (Credit: Center Stage)

BALTIMORE, October 31, 2014 – Appropriately performed at the intimate Head Theater, the current Center Stage production of “Next to Normal” debuted boasting a decidedly modern twist and an open and thoroughly contemporary set. Both added transparency to the music arrangement that earned composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey a 2009 Tony and a 2010 Pulitzer award for Best Score.

What eventually made this musical successful were its early rounds of regional theater refinement. I first saw “Normal” at Arena Stage in late 2008 when that company was largely operating out of temporary digs in Crystal City.

At that time, Molly Smith refined the edges of the show by cutting its snarky electro-shock therapy humor. She also refocused the plot arc on the dynamics of a suburban family struggling with a mother’s mental illness; a father and daughter living with a generation of pain over one child’s tragic loss; and the survivor’s attempts to deal with the aftermath.

Under the direction of Charm City native David Schweizer, Center Stage’s production of “Normal” builds on his track record of musical innovation to deliver a tighter, more contemporary version of what is fast becoming a classic, must-see musical focused on the problem of mental illness.

Mom Diana is conflicted about all those prescription drugs. (Credit: Center Stage)
Mom Diana is conflicted about all those prescription drugs, flushing them, along with the memory of her late son Gabe. (Credit: Center Stage)

Director David Schweizer feels it’s all about a family that sings. “This family sings constantly, making Next to Normal the kind of show that is more like a modern opera, sung throughout and with the extraordinary dramatic and story-telling power of music as its central engine.”

After Sandy Hook and the Golden Colorado midnight movie mass-shootings, suburban teenage angst is no longer shocking. Indeed, it seems to have almost become “Normal.” Schweizer has assembled a cast of actors to portray this drama’s edgy characters, and there’s not a single weak link among them.

Schweizer also benefits from inventive support of set designer Caleb Wertenbaker’s transparent backdrop, where six musicians performing in shadow-silhouettes that allows the audience to directly experience the emotional impact and energy of every sharply focused song. Seen in the photo above, the likewise visually transparent home of a pair of onetime architecture students is the focal point of the action as well as the symbol of their family’s suburban alienation.

Another plus: projection designer Driscoll Otto’s rear projection magic via a QLAB media server. Otto made the stage a kaleidoscope of moods and images that transformed the modular suburban tract home into an evening park under lamplight in one moment, and an electro shock therapy suite the next.

The plot of this musical follows the lives of Dan and Diana, an idealistic young couple portrayed by classically-trained opera singer Michael Winther and regional stage veteran Ariela Morgenstern. Dan and Diana were forced almost two decades previously into a premature shotgun marriage due to an unplanned pregnancy that unfortunately ended in the tragic death of their firstborn son, Gabe. The heartbreak and ensuing mental trauma triggers Diana’s decent into madness.

Daughter Natalie has cell phone issues. (Credit: Center Stage)
Rebellious daughter Natalie has cell phone issues. (Credit: Center Stage)

Fast-forward 16 years of denial and grief and we arrive in present time, where we encounter an over-programmed suburban existence of boring and predictable sex and an endless supply of prescription drugs. That alone is bad enough. But it’s also interrupted by Dan and Diana’s cold, whiny and disconnected adolescent daughter Natalie, played with pitch-perfect self-indulgence by Kally Duling. Natalie has a perfect role model in her mom, as Diana’s prescription med mismanagement provides the rebellious teenager with the perfect road map to adolescent self-destruction.

The show’s final act takes a rude awakening by daughter Natalie via a smartphone walk down memory lane to jar Diana around deciding to come face-to-face with her family’s total dysfunction. But by then, it’s too little and too late.

Wertenbaker’s transparent set allows the audience to directly experience the emotional music that carries the plot along. One key element in the score is its series of repeated themes like “I’m Alive.” This motif introduces the tragic loss of Gabe, the child who wasn’t, whose loss triggered his mother’s psychotic breakdown. His shadowy figure is portrayed with “America’s Got Talent” intensity by Justin Scott Brown.

Another of the show’s thematic motifs, “You Don’t Know,” is fragile mother Diana’s cry for help. It’s accompanied in the second act by rockstar shrink Dr. Madden, played with over-the-top energy by Matt Lutz. Yet another theme is embodied in the full company’s delivery of “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling.”

In all, there are nearly 20 songs in each of the two acts. Kitt’s and Yorkey’s book and score bring you full circle through it all. Their efforts are considerably aided in this production by a smoking six piece band with a Bruce Hornsby and The Range sound that comes across as more contemporary. That’s largely due to the moody strings of Jose Cueto’s violin synthesizer, Jonathan Rogerson’s lead guitar, and four additional regional musicians under the lead of music director Darren Cohen who doubled on keyboards.

Rounding out the cast of three actors making their Center Stage debut are mad Matt Lutz as the Mad Shrink; Kally Duling playing Dan & Diana‘s daughter Natalie, and Matthew Rodin as her stoner boyfriend Henry, a 2014 graduate of the Boston Conservatory, whose proud parents travel the Northeast Corridor to see their son’s debut in Baltimore.

As noted by some theater goers, the only minor disconnect in this production involved the lead character of Diana the thoroughly medicated Mom, played by the rather voluptuous Ariela Morgenstern. Her raven hair and black stockings were a far cry from cover image of the anorexic and obviously manic blond depicted on the playbill cover art.

That said, however, Morganstern delivers the goods as the delusional stay-at-home mom who descends into a manic, food obsessed moment by making a week’s worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the living room floor, later riding out the electroshock therapy on a portable gurney and leaving her memory forever at the sanitarium.

The unexpected star of the show may very well be Michael Winther’s unassuming Dan. He brought the show to an emotional close with his reprise of “I Am The One.”

The Center Stage production of “Next to Normal” feels like a modern classic, and pulls the covers off a once taboo subject with style, energy and pop rock energy. On a scale of one to four, this performance was a Grand Slam Home Run and will give disappointed Orioles fans something to commiserate about long after the Oriole-less conclusion of this year’s World Series.

If you decide to attend the show during the final weeks of its run, don’t miss a unique opportunity to pick up free literature on mental health medications, postpartum depression and Bipolar Disorders in children and adolescents. It’s being made available by Center Stage to its patrons as a public service.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

“Next to Normal” runs through November 16th. Tickets start at $19 bucks and can be reserved by visiting

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