Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Having just seen and reviewed a stage presentation of Harvey, a comedy about the state of mental health care and one character’s invisible friend just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but draw a few comparisons with SRO Productions III’s Next to Normal. This show also is about the state of mental health care, an invisible friend and a family’s angst, but that’s where the similarity ends.
This intense rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt was produced on Broadway about 4 1/2 years ago, winning three Tony Awards from the 11 for which it was nominated. SRO’s version, well-directed by Scott Fisher, is as professionally staged in the ballroom of the Roberson Museum and Science Center as anything you might see in New York.
The rock musical genre is a funny thing. Sometimes a work can seem to go on ad infinitum without much in the way of tunes you can sing on the way home, but it can have the capacity to stick with you nonetheless. Next to Normal does just that.
SRO’s performers have to sing for a little over two solid hours, with one short intermission, and they never lose their energy or emotional investment in the work. How they are able to keep it together in the face of an almost universally moved-to-tears audience just a few feet away says a great deal about their skill and talent. They deserve the standing ovation they get after the closing ensemble number.
Forty-something Diane Goodman (Beth Buczkowski) has suffered a slow slide into madness following the death of her infant son, Gabe, 18 years ago, and the effects on her husband, Dan (Brendan Curtin), and daughter, Natalie (Anna Simek), are life-changing. Diane sees and talks to Gabe, now a young man in her mind, but barely acknowledges her living child, Natalie, a teen trying to hold on and find her way in a dysfunctional family.
Gabe is played with confident pathos, with the right amount of mischief, by the handsome Austin Kiley. His duet with his father is musically beautiful and emotionally charged, filled with what it means to love someone you’ve lost. To find out why they are singing together at all when Dan can’t see Gabe is worth the price of admission.
Diane’s psychiatrists (both played by Brett Nichols) try over time a variety of medications to ease her distress, but when she decides not to take them anymore, she slides back into her mania. The last resort for Diane after she tries to commit suicide is ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy). It not only doesn’t work for her right away but wipes out her memory. Her family then must try to help her recall the life she lost — absent any mention of the baby, of course.
Each actor has a strong and believable rock ‘n’ roll delivery, but my favorite performance came from Nichols, who, for a couple of seconds at a time, becomes “a scary rock star,” as Diane later calls him.
A word about Josh Smith as Natalie’s long-suffering, tender boyfriend, Henry: I just loved him. He sets an example for kids his age who are kind enough to take on the grief of friends in their circle when others might give up. I was proud of the character for his humanity, and Smith does a beautiful job with that supporting role.
The musicians, toiling behind a curtain off to the side, follow the action without missing a beat, so to speak, with John Isenberg on piano, Mike Whitney on guitar, Chris Adams on drums, Ruth Fisher on cello,and Beth Bartlett on electric and string bass. They are all wonderful!
The great set design by Gene Czebiniak. Congratulations also to the sound and lighting people. The ballroom wasn’t originally built for this kind of performance, but they made it work very well.
Information for families struggling with similar issues (and what family isn’t in one way or another) is being offered at the show, which is a great opportunity to get informed if you are new to the mental health system.
IF YOU GO: The final performances are at 8 p.m. today (Oct. 26) and 2 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 27) at the Roberson Museum mansion, 30 Front St., Binghamton. For ticket information, call 722-2821. General admission tickets are $20, $18 for students and senior citizens. Note: Next to Normal features some adult content and language.