Next to Normal was the musical that changed modern perception of theater. The harrowing story of a mother plagued by mental illness and its effect on her family garnered Tony wins for Original Score, Orchestrations, and Lead Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, the original Diana. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, and paved the way for the commercial success of musicals like Dear Evan Hansen. It’s one of my personal favorites.
I made the snowy trek to Blackfriars Theatre from Buffalo, and my first thought upon arrival was how impressed I was by the endurance of this downtown Rochester staple; they’re celebrating their 70th anniversary! And as far as this production goes, the company proved exactly why they’ve continued to be successful.
Janine Mercandetti brings a unique approach to Diana, the story’s troubled matriarch. She’s an accomplished singer, and could out-sing even the healthiest Alice Ripley. Her vocal quality is clear, her notes are precise, and her phrasing is excellent. I personally felt that either because of the direction of the piece or Mercandetti’s own choices, her early Act One seemed a little presentational. I saw a marked change, however, at the pivotal moment in Act One. From that point on, Mercandetti takes control of the show, and it’s an award-worthy performance.
J. Simmons plays Dan, Diana’s husband, who’s holding on hope of a life where his family can be free of the mental illness and grief they’ve suffered. He’s Diana’s perfect foil, and Simmons plays the extremely difficult role with aplomb. Dan is an architect, and Simmons’ interpretation is very architectural: he deals in absolutes. There’s no grey area. I truly enjoyed his work in “Why Stay/A Promise.”
As the Goodman children, Gabe and Natalie, rising professionals Zachary Jones and Haley Knips both possess an impressive amount of raw talent. Both are juniors at Nazareth College, and the school should be proud of the representation by the two young actors. Jones has a remarkable vocal instrument, a clear tenor with a sweet falsetto that’s likely the envy of his classmate. More impressive was his navigation of what sounded to be a voice not at 100%. His role is complicated, and his nuance and relationship with Mercandetti made for an impressive evening. Knips has a difficult job as the source of much of the evening’s humor, and for the most part she handles the role of Natalie well. Her singing voice is her best asset, and she adds some delightful touches as Natalie. There were moments, however, where she had a tendency to speed through lines, especially punchlines, resulting in a lack of clarity in some essential story moments.
In supporting roles as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden and Henry, respectively, Carl Del Buono and Evan Miller Watelet add to the well-rounded narrative. Del Buono is delightful in his roles, especially Dr. Madden. He’s accomplishing something really impressive: driving the story without ever touching the wheel. It’s not an easy task. Miller Watelet plays Natalie’s boyfriend Henry with a genuine innocence and has an excellent voice to boot.
The ENTIRE production staff, especially Director Kerry Young and Musical Director Andy Pratt, deserve commendation. What an impressive use of playing space, what a careful treatment of the delicate issues in the piece, what clear and concise storytelling! Young is also to be celebrated for her blind casting. Next to Normal has a tendency to (until the recent Kennedy Center production starring Brandon Victor Dixon as Dan, Khamary Rose as Gabe, and Maia Reficco as Natalie) be whitewashed. Pratt’s band was extremely talented, with a few opening night hiccups in this difficult score.
I’ll leave readers with this thought: I hate standing ovations as the accepted “standard.” They should be reserved for excellence, performances that exceed expectations. I was one of the first to leap to my feet at this production, and if you are lucky enough to see it, I’m sure you will too.
Running through February 23rd, the show was 2 hours and fifteen minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.
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