This pop-rock musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey hit Broadway in 2009, won three Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year Intimate and downbeat, NORMAL shows the devastation wreaked by mental illness upon a small, “regular” nuclear family. The Buffalo premiere, at the Irish Classical Theater Company
ICTC, has been directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, with musical direction by Jason Bravo. It plays weekends at the Andrews Theatre through October 7th. The show runs nearly 2 1⁄2 hours with its ten minute intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Urban America, present day. Dan and Diana, a young middle aged couple, live with their high school aged daughter Natalie, and the dybbuk-like Gabe, a nearly-grown-up version of the baby boy they lost in infancy. Or at least Diana lives with Gabe. She’s bipolar with schizoid tendencies, you see, and has been ever since Gabe’s untimely death. Diana, wild and erratic, and only intermittently medicated, is suffering; Dan, her patient and supportive, underappreciated spouse is suffering; Natalie, their brilliant but emotionally frozen-out child is suffering; even Gabe, the very essence of lost potential, suffers. Natalie cautiously takes up with a boy at school, but finds that her mother casts a very large shadow. Diana and Dan wander through the dark, uncertain worlds of psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy and ECT, hoping for something even “next to normal”. Don’t expect many laughs. This is a pretty wrenching experience!
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: NORMAL is a musical of the Andrew-Lloyd-Webber, mostly-singing type. The actors, aided by an expert five- person ensemble headed up by Jason Bravo, are singing maybe 75 or 80% of the time. There are over three dozen titles on the song list! That said, the numbers tend to blend into one another. Truth to tell, it verges on monotony. There are no take-home songs, and few musical highlights. The lyrics are no better–often banal, prone to cliché. Mr. Yorkey’s book is open to the same criticism. Did this really win a Pulitzer prize???
In the critical role of Diana, Jenn Stafford gives an all-out, heartfelt performance. We certainly feel her pain, but we don’t get that much of what I would call the essence of her illness. The problem is compounded by the fact that Ms. Stafford has a decidedly youthful look. Years of illness have apparently taken no physical toll. I had trouble wrapping my head around the idea that she was Natalie’s mother, and not her older sister. Also missing from Ms. Stafford’s performance is the diva-like flamboyance, the consuming narcissism that gave left Natalie “the invisible girl”. Renee Landrigan does well conveying Natalie’s tentativeness, confusion and reactive pain. Both ladies have big, nasal-type singing voices, sometimes, in the upper registers, a little hard on the ears.
I particularly enjoyed Jason Watson as the hyper-reasonable, endlessly suffering, hopeful-in-spite-of-everything husband, Dan. His performance is nuanced, his singing voice clean and pleasant. Patrick Cameron invests the ghostly Gabe with a fearful yearning, and an impish, almost demonic energy that suits the character well.
Happily, despite some pretty serious shortcomings, the play manages to be affecting and powerful in spots. Director Pezzimenti has his actors well coached, and firing on all cylinders. The musicians take care not to drown out the singers. The Andrews space works exceptionally well for an intimate show such as this. It’s been temporarily and most successfully reconfigured, into what amounts to a deep thrust. (Note to the management: This is so much better than theater in the square!) The set itself is minimal but functional.
In sum, NEXT TO NORMAL is a very mixed bag–a highly ambitious show that takes itself very seriously, and ultimately falls far short of meeting the expectations it creates. It’s a tribute to the professionalism of the ICTC that the Buffalo mounting works as well as it does.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!