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Well done NEXT TO NORMAL at Beck Center

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

There is a recent trend for Cleveland area professional theatres to couple with local university drama programs.  Cleveland Play House has married itself to both Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve’s MFA programs.  Cleveland Public Theatre and Oberlin College have such an agreement.  The connection between Beck Center and Baldwin Wallace’s nationally ranked musical theatre program, has resulted in not only allowing BW students to appear on a professional stage, and the expansion of the acting pool for Beck, but the production several top notch shows.

Last year Beck-BW parlayed to produce the mesmerizing SPRING AWAKENING, which received The Cleveland Critics Circle—2012 best musical production award, and garnered Victoria Bussert recognition as the best director of a musical.  This year, Bussert, again is staging a winner with NEXT TO NORMAL, which stars former and present BW students and a university faculty member.

NEXT TO NORMAL, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, is a unique musical which addresses loss, death, suicide, drug usage, and the ethics of modern psychiatry.

It won three 2009 Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Pulitzer Board credited the show with “expanding the scope of subject matter for musicals.”

The story concerns Diana Goodman, a suburban American housewife, who has been diagnosed as having a form of bipolar disorder coupled with what might be schizophrenia.  The question comes as to whether the condition is hereditary or was induced by a trauma early in her marriage.  Together with her husband, Dan, she fights to keep her mind and their family on some sort of “normal” path.  Maybe not normal, but “next to normal.”  After extensive therapy Diana decides to stop taking the pills, cuts off all mental health help, including the electroconvulsive therapy that caused her short-term amnesia.  This decision leads to an unsettling conclusion.

The play brings up many questions, questions usually presented in a dramatic, rather than musical form.  Yorkey’s book is so well developed that the singing enhances the actions, rather than being an interlude from the development of the dramatic tension.  Questions include:  Is being happy the same as happiness?  Is there a way to treat mental illnesses?  Is losing one’s memory good or bad?  Can someone put mind over matter and succeed in controlling psychotic instances?  Is mental illness in the brain or in the soul?

NEXT TO NORMAL is the type of show that Bussert does best…quirky, compelling, requiring creativity and strong talent.  The script and her cast are up for the requirements.  The singing voices are marvelous, the acting is generally of high quality, the pacing is excellent, the show’s meaning shines clearly.

Highlight numbers include “He’s Not Here,” “I Am the One,” “How Could I Ever Forget,” “It’s Gonna Be Good,” and “I’m Alive.”

Chris McCarrell, a BW senior, displays a strong singing voice and totally inhabits the role of Gabe, the son.  With his boyish good looks and performance abilities he is Broadway ready!  He is a physical and talent flashback to Rex Nockingust, a BW grad who went to NY and took over the lead in THE FANTASTICS.  (Too bad the role of PIPPIN in the Broadway revival is already cast.)

Katherine DeBoer generally has a nice grasp on the role of the mentally ill Diana, making her a real person with overwhelming psychological issues.  Her singing voice is strong, her lyric interpretations excellent.

Suspending Diana from the set during the Electro Convulsive Therapy scene, rather than placing her on an operating room table, created an interesting conundrum.  Was she supposed to be a symbol of psychiatric crucifixion, a victim of mental health S&M, or was this a necessity caused by the set design?

Scott Plate is impressive as the emotionally stifled, yet well meaning Dan, Diana’s husband.  He has a fine voice and sings meanings not just words, thus creating dialogue out of lyrics

Caroline Murrah creates in daughter Natalie a confused, obsessive teenager, desperate for love and acceptance.  Though her voice is strident at times, her overall song interpretation is good.

Phil Carroll is spot on as both Dr. Madden, Diane’s rock star psychiatrist and Dr. Fine, a traditional mental health professional.  As with the others in the cast, his singing voice is excellent.

Ellis Dawson, who sings well, stays on the surface as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend.  It’s hard to accept him as a real person.

Jeff Herrman has created a stage design of wooden scaffolding which, while attractive and properly symbolic (hundreds of prescription bottles decorate the set), makes for some awkward staging.  The actors are constantly ducking under the second level, which distracts from the action.

Nancy Maier’s band is excellent, backing up rather than drowning out the very important lyrics.

David Zody’s choreography generally worked, but was overly obvious and repetitive in the convulsive therapy segment.

Though the sound system worked well, one must question why in this very small theatre, where no patron is more than five rows away from the stage, and the cast having trained voices, microphones were needed.  The electronic sound distracted from the reality of the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: NEXT TO NORMAL, a combined Beck Center and Baldwin Wallace University production, is well done.  This is the type of show that should result in sold out houses.

NEXT TO NORMAL is scheduled to run through April 21 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or