By Bill Hirschman
This is why we go to theater.
Zoetic Stage’s production of Next to Normal is why we all go to theater.
To be moved. To laugh. To have our minds and hearts opened, our vision expanded. To learn we are not alone in our fear, our pain, but also in our hope.
We watch a family that echoes our own as it struggles to cope with a buried tragedy that has unhinged the mother but also crippled the entire family individually and as a whole.
And yet, while there is no musical comedy happy ending, we watch love and sacrifice power through rocky compromises to an ultimate declaration that continuing to live and love is a heroic virtue. The piece insists on treating the audience as intelligent, perceptive partners in the co-creation of theater.
This 38th Zoetic production – easily one of the finest in its history — blesses the audience with a deeply affecting meld of fluid staging, glorious music and five superb performances clustered around an incandescent one by Jeni Hacker as Diana that exceeds superlatives.
This 2010 Pulitzer winner by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey has appeared in the region four times – each outing unassailably solid. But this production under director Stuart Meltzer and musical director Caryl Fantel is in a class by itself, heartfelt, humorous, unnerving and somehow life-affirming as well.
Under it all, there is an undercurrent of caring and compassion for the human condition — not just for Diana but for her husband, her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend – by extension, for us all.
The 2008 work, focused on a familiar suburban family, is told both from the somewhat dependable view of the family, but also from the anguished and not at all reliable perception of Diana.
The plot opens as she is berating her 17-year-old son Gabe (Nate Promkul) for staying out late. Then she initially seems like the classic house mom prepping sandwiches for her family to take to work and school. But quickly we see her mind is profoundly ravaged by symptoms of bi-polar depression including hallucinations that cripple even everyday tasks.
Desperately trying to cope with the fallout on the family life are her 16-year-old daughter Natalie (Gabi Gonzalez) awash in her own outsider issues and Diana’s devoted husband Dan (Ben Sandomir). Natalie, an intellectually brilliant but emotionally stunted teen, is blocked from fully embracing the repeated offer of a relationship from a quirky stoner-slacker beau Henry (Joseph Morell).
Diana and her family pursue an endlessly changing regimen of pharmacology and the electro-shock treatments — “solutions” that dull Diana’s perception of being alive and even cause amnesia. Coming back from one set of treatments emotionally cauterized, she tells Natalie with apologetic listlessness, “I love you as much as I can.”
Diana’s doctor Madden (Robert Koutras) alternately seems to be a caring health provider, but in Diana’s mind, he can turn into a leather Goth creature.
As the family tries to deal directly with defeat after defeat, emotions pour out of their expressive faces like water rushing from an open fire hydrant as they persevere in trying to support and love the wounded.
But in this paradigm, loyalty and even love are not trump cards. And the final solution for the ongoing journey is not a solution at all but a fractured accommodation that allows everyone to have hope that they will be able to live a life, not normal, but “next to normal.”
Still, be solidly assured that the evening is punctuated liberally with volleys of dark gallows humor. At one point, Diana quips in an attempt at a joke, “Valium is my favorite color.”
As I wrote about an earlier production, “This… is representative of a new wave of American musicals written by and for younger, more adventurous audiences who love theater but are tired of the fifth retread of a warhorse.”
Kitt’s extensive score of about 30 songs has a pop rock flavor with faint echoes of Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins and even Stephen Sondheim. But it embraces elegiac ballads, rock anthems and nerve-jangling kick-butt numbers. Yorkey’s lyrics range from almost ineffably poetic to unintentionally hackneyed.
It ranges from the heartening finale “Light” to the impossibly poignant yet glorious, “I Miss the Mountains,” occurring as Diana rebels and tosses out a cabinet-full of mood-flattening pills.
Meltzer guides the cast in mining every aspect of the material. He deftly and smoothly moves them around in traditional staging, but then has them act as a swirling commenting chorus as we see Diana from the inside struggling with reality.
Jeni Hacker has been building a scrapbook of indelible performances for years now: Mrs. Lovett in Zoetic’s Sweeney Todd, Fosca in its Passion, the mother in Fun Home and in Grindr Mom.
But her Diana is a masterpiece of musical theater performance in which her expressive voice and her life-lined face exude heartbreak, yearning and confusion. Her visage is as readable as a headline, delivering an instantly changing kaleidoscope of fear, boredom or anguish.
And the rest of cast: Sandomir keeps giving ever more impressive performances (fresh off Slow Burn’s comedy of Honeymoon in Vegas and memorable in the title role of Sweeney Todd for PPTOPA). Here, he becomes the kind of neighbor you see at work every day or mowing the lawn on the weekend. Yet, Sandomir radiates a bottomless depth of love and commitment in the face of helplessness.
Promkul has been accumulating attention in supporting roles, including as a god in Slow Burn’s Once On This Island and as Anthony in Zoetic’s Sweeney Todd. Here he is a vibrant presence, whether haunting the edges of the scene or scorching the stage with the insistent song, “I’m Alive.”
Gonzalez inhabits the deeply troubled Natalie whose feeling of estrangement from Diana has poisoned her ability to risk herself in a relationship. She credibly creates a late adolescent tied up in knots, forced to grow up too quickly and who is feeling her way into young adulthood through a very dark room.
Morell’s strong solid voice reveals Henry’s inner strength and worth beneath the nerdy exterior. Koutras manages to credibly be both a caring physician and the weird creature that Diana sometimes perceives.
The evening opens in front of a black curtain with white neurons snaking out across the black floor from a classic living room armchair. Much of the opening number occurs there, but then at a key moment, designer David Goldstein has the curtain disappear, revealing the exterior of a uber-typical large two-story suburban home – except it’s upside down.
With the journey occurring across space and time — and popping in and out of Diana’s delusions — the nimble lighting by Preston Bircher is crucial to helping the audience keep track of reality and illusion.
High praise is due Matt Corey for the sound in which the full heft of the orchestra is perfectly balanced with the vocals of the cast. Indeed, this critic has never clearly heard the pivotal lyrics of the finale until now. Corey and the enunciation of the cast finally deliver the crucial poetry to be comprehensible.
Fantel’s backstage band is so prominent in the soundscape that they are as vital a presence as the actors. A bow is due: Fantel on piano, Liuba Ohrimenco on keyboard and violin, Elena Alamila on cello, Greg Minnick on guitar, Rupert Ziawinski on bass, and Roy Fantel on drums and percussion.
It’s not easy task for the band or for the melding of voices that complexly interweave harmony lines to support each other, just as the characters are supporting each other.
Like its heroes and heroines, this production is memorable for being brave, honest and true. So, seriously, if you love theater at all, do yourself a favor, cancel what’s on your calendar and do not miss this one.
Next To Normal from Zoetic Stage runs through April 9 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 hours 35 minutes including one intermission. Tickets are $60-65. Call (305) 949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org.
If it’s been a while since you’ve been to the Arsht, much of the closest parking has been shuttered and co-opted for construction. Come early to find parking which is not cheap. Further, driving to and from the Arsht from I-95 via I-395 is a nightmare of corkscrews. Allow extra time for travel. Parking options and directions are spelled out on the Arsht’s website at https://www.arshtcenter.org/en/Visit/Parking-And-Traffic/.