The highly anticipated local production of the hit Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey show "Next To Normal" has finally opened at Capitol Hill's Balagan Theatre. And while still an incredibly evocative and powerful show, the current production, while technically superb, didn't quite manage that same hard hitting spark.
A tragic yet hopeful story of one family's struggle with a bi-polar disorder, the show follows Diana (Beth DeVries) who on the surface seems to have an idyllic life; a doting husband and wonderful kids. But a tragedy in her past has caused a break with reality and now her life is trying to find the right medications and treatments (including shock therapy) to bring her back to normal. Her husband Dan (Auston James) and kids Gabe and Natalie (Kody Bringman and Keaton Whittaker) do what they can to support her but sometimes Mom's condition is just too much to handle. So much so that Natalie, who will do anything to escape, begins a relationship with Henry (Ryan Hotes) who, while caring, introduces her to some mind altering drugs of her own while Diana attempts to find just the right cure through her many doctors (all played by Ryan McCabe).
This Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning show is definitely engaging and thoughtful. And it was a huge hit on Broadway. But I wondered how this co-venture from Balagan Theatre and Contemporary Classics would fare in the more intimate setting of the Erickson Theatre. And there was one of my first issues with the show. Yes, the cast was right there, practically in the audience's laps with all this hard hitting drama but so was the band, with music direction by R.J. Tancioco, with the hard hitting rock score. And that thumping and blasting tended to drown out the magnificent vocals and lyrics. And in a show like this, the lyrics are everything. Director Brandon Ivie does a great job transferring this story to the smaller stage and the flow and pacing are all there but I occasionally missed the punch of the situation especially when missing some of the lyrics.
So that's my first big issue of the show but what of the cast. This is an amazingly tough show both emotionally and vocally and requires a killer cast. And it has one. Everyone on the stage is extremely talented. And I don't know if it was that at times I was straining to hear them or something else but at times I didn't feel that connection with them or the story as I had before. James has a wonderful voice but he was who I connected with the least. I didn't always feel the commitment to the situation. Hotes does a fine job with a smaller role and showed off some lovely moments with Whittaker. McCabe turns in a very different performance than I've seen him in previously and completely nails it. His quite subdued and stoic Doctors were all the more so when contracted with the moments where he would bust out with some outrageous riff from one of Diana's delusions. And Bringman brings out the perfect good son combined with bad boy the role demands and delivers it with some kick ass pipes.
But it's the ladies who really blew me away and this show belongs to them. DeVries is superb in a very demanding role as the on again, off again Diana. She has a truly amazing and powerful voice but even she got drowned out every now and again by the band. But even that couldn't diminish her commitment to the role. And Whittaker may be young but she has one hell of a career ahead of her. Hell, she's already had one hell of a career behind her as she has already performed on Broadway in the recent revival of "A Little Night Music" with the likes of Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. And her talent completely shone through as she gave a portrayal of a conflicted and misunderstood teen in a very difficult situation.
So all together it amounts to what could be another stupendous triumph for the juggernaut that is Balagan Theatre as long as they work out those not so minor issues. Just like Diana, they have some work to do to get back to where they want to be.
"Next to Normal" from Balagan Theatre and Contemporary Classics performs at the Erickson Theatre through March 2nd. For tickets or information contact the Balagan box office at 206-329-1050 or visit them online at www.balagantheatre.org.