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Review:The Fulton's 'Next to Normal' is a fierce, vibrant musical about a family dealing with mental illness

Intelligencer Journal - 5/19/2019

In “Next to Normal,” which opened Thursday night in the Fulton’s Tell Studio Theatre, Diana Goodman is living with bipolar disorder. It has been dogging her for 16 years, and her husband and children are, in their own ways, trying to help her but failing to find help for themselves.

In this fierce and excellent production, Diana’s pain and confusion swirl around her at every turn. New doctors try new ideas. New pills bring new reactions. She is hyper one day and deep in the depths of depression the next.

Anne Tolpegin gives an amazing performance as Diana. You feel for her confusion, her inability to find herself within all the noise.

Right there with her is Mark Campbell as her husband, Dan. At times, the voice of reason and the peacemaker between Diana and their daughter, Natalie (Abigail Isom), Dan can only do so much. He misses the woman he married.

You can see the years of pain and exhaustion in his face, the tired hope he brings himself to feel with each new treatment.

Their son, Gabe (Devin Lewis), is clinging to Diana for attention, urging her to flush all her pills down the toilet, to be alive.

Isom’s teenage Natalie is all anger and confusion. Living with Diana as her mom has not been easy. I wish the performance had been a little more nuanced and the character didn’t run off the stage and slam a door so many times.

But I think it is more about how the character is written than Isom’s performance, which gives Natalie a cynical wit and a slightly open door to being more than just fury.

Natalie’s stoner boyfriend, Henry (Alex Walton), is a good contrast for the tightly wound Natalie, but she can’t see it. Their faltering romance is one of the sweetest parts of the show, and Walton has wonderful comic timing.

Rounding out the cast is Allen E. Read as the doctors Diana sees. The first one is all about pills and results. When Diana tells him she feels numb, he thinks she is stable. No problems. The second doctor realizes that Diana needs more help, that feeling nothing in not a way to live.

Read does a fine job as both doctors, showing the best and the worst of the medical profession. He, too, has several quite humorous moments.

In fact humor runs throughout “Next to Normal.”

That, along with the sometimes jagged, sometimes sad score, makes “Next to Normal” a refreshingly different, vibrant musical.

Kudos to the band, led by Benjamin Weiss on keyboards, with Matthew Subers on guitar, Luke Leonard on bass and Stephen Flemming on drums. Garrett Taylor is musical director

This is a first-rate production. The singing is strong and the connections between the family feel real.

Director Paige Price has created a vibrant, fast-paced tornado of a show.

I do wish she has slowed just a bit at times. A pivotal scene with a birthday cake could have been more dramatic. The sheet cake with a block candle didn’t quite cut it.

A scene where Diana starts making endless sandwiches moved too quickly to pack a punch.

But Price slowed down other scenes to pack that punch, and the ending brought tears to me eyes.

The way the seating is in this production, with one long group of chairs on one side and another on the other, it felt like my side was getting too many backs and not enough faces, especially at key dramatic moments.

Did the other side feel the same? Directing for this kind of thrust theater is tricky.

Interestingly, it didn’t have as much effect as it might have. The cast is so strong, the movement and body language so real, you could feel the characters emotions.

Still, more faces would have been good.

Crédito: JANE HOLAHAN | Entertainment Reporter