Kevin T. Baldwin
“Maybe we can’t be okay but maybe we’ll be strong and we’ll try anyway.”
WORCESTER – Studio Theater Worcester has received a positive diagnosis for its powerful musical, “Next to Normal,” continuing a strong brand established by the group’s mission statement to deliver Worcester Community productions of “quality theatrical works.”
The musical theater, which features a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkie and music by Tom Kate, has been praised as a somber or even “angry” “dark” musician.
It’s not any of those things – although the “worry” is not worth some consideration.
It’s unmistakable music – a stark and honest portrayal of a troubled family trying to work their way out of a tangled web of dysfunction, woven by a nasty mix of mental illness, misery and medicine.
Also, if one wanted to attempt a visual scheme of a restless mind on stage, it would probably look a lot like a “next to the normal” set. You feel like you are literally looking at someone’s unstable mind or at least how they see their life on a turbulent day on the basis of a turbulent day.
Meet the Goodmans: Dan and Diana (portrayed by Brandon Lee and Barbara Kessler) and their teenage daughter Natalie (Cassie Donigan).
Immediately, it must be emphasized that the three actors provide thoughtful, sensitive portrayals of their characters dealing with Diana’s ongoing mental health crisis – one linked to a bipolar diagnosis and exemplified in the human form of the couple’s first son, Gabe (Michael Skrzyk).
But in Yorkie’s story, the impression given by the ghostly character of Gabe is one that spans from the late loyal son to the devious devil and every cliché in between.
So, is Gabe a malignant spirit or just the result of an overtreatment of a malignant condition?
This is the question the music seems to want to dance around and certainly does as the show progresses.
He presents me with a deceptive picture of Father Dan, in a desperate attempt to keep his family together. However, the show tends to make it sound more like a Titanic captain trying to keep everyone calm long after the iceberg is hit and the dance troupe sinks.
Kessler and Donegan are both simply (pardon the pun) “electrifying” as mother and daughter and capturing every musical moment. Donegan, in particular, has a natural comedic feel to Natalie’s character that sometimes tends to disappear into other pictures.
Skrzek is just as fixated as Gabe and whenever he steps off the stage, long moments at a time, the anticipation of his impending “return” is fierce. His performance of the song “I’m Alive” is deeply captivating.
With all its advantages, “Beside the Ordinary” is not an offer that attracts everyone. It’s not a musical “feel good” and many of the subplots on the show are not fully resolved.
However, that is not the intent either. The point is to keep the discussion going long after you leave the stage – and that’s where the show and STW productions ultimately succeed.
In the show program, there are no less than seven pages devoted to the topic of bipolar disorder, mental health statistics, explanations of important terms, and valuable medical resources for anyone who may need them.
Efforts demonstrate that this is one district theater, at least for the purpose of the important medical topic contained in “Beside the Ordinary”, recognizing a high degree of social responsibility.
Director John Wayland Somers’ meticulously crafted theatrical direction of “Next to Ordinary” is enhanced by a brilliant creative suite crafted by art designer David N.
Blocking options by Somers help propel the show, transitioning seamlessly from scene to scene, moment to moment, from start to finish. Any downtime for specified compensation was minimal.
Adding to the show’s musical success were the efforts of music director Chris Leighton and Next to Normal Band.
One section of the Farreh stage (upper level, right stage) had a noticeable bright spot. Anyone singing in that spot was in almost complete darkness.
Also, the band tended to beat out some of the solo artists, and at the beginning of Act Two with “Wish I Were Here,” they drowned out all the actors who were singing on stage.
“Next to Normal” is a deep and intense musical entertainment that succeeds in engaging, enlightening, entertaining and informing all those fortunate enough to attend.
The musical lasts for about two hours, with one intermission.
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Music by Tom Kate. Directed by John Wayland Somers. Musical direction by Chris Leighton. Additional choreography by Kim Bowers.
Presented by Studio Theater Worcester, at Salem Covenant Church, 215 Mountain St. , Worcester 7:30 p.m. June 18, 24, 27; 2 p.m. on June 19 and 26. Tickets, $25; studiotheatreworcester.org/tickets
Cast includes: Barbara Kessler, Brandon Lee, Cassie Donegan, Cristiano Lourenco Jr., Michael Skrzyk and Ben Howe.