An Electrifying Journey In Zoetic’s Gripping ‘Next To Normal’

Though I was already pretty certain that Zoetic Stage’s production of Next to Normal was bound to be an incredible one based on my familiarity with the show and with the talented team involved, I didn’t quite expect it to be quite as electrifying a ride as it proved to be at the Carnival Studio theatre this weekend. Both fans of the show and newcomers to the story are sure to be taken in by this gripping journey, which is one I first experienced over a decade ago during the Off-Broadway run that preceded the show’s Tony-winning turn on the great white way. 

As I described in my recent feature about the production, the musical is one that’s become relatively popular in the years, despite or perhaps because of its dark subject matter: a family dealing with the impact of serious mental illness on each member’s ability to live a “normal” life. 

On the other hand, with the increasing difficulty of just surviving the day-to-day in contemporary America as well as the rate of various mental health issues seemingly always on the rise, it isn’t surprising that this show is one that continues to resonate with many. 

 Zoetic Stage – Next To Normal (Pictured – Jeni Hacker, Nate Promkul, Robert Koutras. Photo – Justin Namon

When we first meet the Goodmans, it’s “just another day” in the life of a “perfect loving family” of four. Or, at least that’s the story Diana—wife of Dan and mother of Natalie and Gabe—tries to sell us before having a dramatic sandwich-related breakdown on her kitchen floor at the end of the show’s opening number. 

From there, matters only escalate, with Diana’s behavior eventually revealing that she suffers from severe delusions as well as erratic moods. To avoid giving away one memorable twist, I’ll refrain from revealing the exact nature of these delusions, but they are inextricably linked to a traumatic incident in her past that altered the fabric of the Goodman family forever. 

The complexity of the way this incident has intertwined with Diana’s bipolar disorder makes hers a rich and complex story, in which she must fight for her life against the unearthly forces of her brain’s dysfunctional chemistry. In songs like the duet “My Pharmacologist and I/Who’s Crazy” the play excels in offering insight into the unique difficulties Diana’s condition entails, and is rich with the sense of dark humor that develops when one must weather impossible circumstances. As she is prescribed a seemingly endless array of medications with which to try to stem the tide, all of which come with an unpleasant collection of side effects, Dan bitterly wonders if it is he who is the crazy one after all for continuing to put up with her dysfunction. 

In another number, Diana viscerally describes her experience of suicidal depression:

Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head?

Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?

It’s like living on a cliffside, not knowing when you’ll dive

Do you know, do you know, what it’s like to die alive?

As her mental state continues to worsen and her doctors seem to be running out of pharmaceuticals to throw at her, a more drastic solution is suggested: ECT, or electric shock therapy, which does seem to help but comes with its own even more disruptive side effects, which cut to the core of her sense of self.  

Zoetic Stage – Next To Normal (Pictured – Nate Promkul, Joseph Morell, Jeni Hacker, Ben Sandomir, Gabi Gonzalez. Photo – Justin Namon

Meanwhile, as the enigmatic Gabe pursues his own sinister agenda, Natalie struggles with finding herself “invisible’ in his shadow and in that of her mother’s dysfunction, attempting to cope by throwing herself into her schoolwork and her piano-playing. Though she also finds some solace in the affections of Henry, a good-hearted stoner who shares her passion for music and quirky sense of humor, when Diana’s condition worsens, she engages in another quite understandable response: turning to drugs. 

Though less fleshed out than Diana and Dan’s more nuanced journey, this subplot is one that has an extraordinary payoff in “Hey #3,” the last of a series of duets between the teen couple, as Henry affirms his commitment to Natalie despite the fact that her mother’s condition may be her genetic legacy. 

In telling these character’s stories, the show’s six member cast lends all the necessary gravitas to this situation and its life-or-death stakes while also infusing the play with plenty of comedic moments. Jenni Hacker takes what is easily the show’s most difficult and what is generally thought of as its most pivotal role, that of central character Diana. 

In an excellent performance that I would even say rivaled original cast member Alice Ripley’s Tony-winning turn in the same role, Hacker ably navigates the demanding score and synthesizes Diana’s emotional extremes into a consistent personality, appearing one moment to be as chipper as your average soccer mom and the next to be in the depths of despair. 

Luckily, the rest of the cast is more than up to the task of keeping up with her intensity. Robert Koutras makes for an amusingly cartoonish doctor figure, and Nate Promkul brings an incredible charisma as Gabe. Ben Sandomir seems a perfect fit as the “steadfast and stolid” Dan, as does Joseph Morell as sincere young lover Henry. Finally, while Gabi Gonzalez’s powerful energy sometimes seemed to be at odds with the fact that she was portraying an insecure “freak” of a  teenager, her pristine vocals and overall intensity kept her character consistently compelling. 

Impeccable design elements also enhance the proceedings, the most notable among them the fact that the Goodman’s house is represented upside down to create an assumed concordance with the family’s topsy turvy lives. By the play’s end, those lives have certainly not been fully righted, and the characters’ futures are still largely uncertainother themes the play touches on include the painful necessity of moving on after unfathomable loss, and the necessity of striving to heal and to live our truths even if doing so sometimes means wounding the ones closest to us. 

Zoetic Stage – Next To Normal (Pictured – Jeni Hacker, Ben Sandomir, Nate Promkul. Photo – Justin Namon

However, the hints of light that emerge throughout this story ensure that it is a bittersweet tale rather than a tragedy—one the New York Times referred to as a “feel-everything” rather than “feel good” musical. Odd as it sounds, though, Next to Normal is a show that usually does make me feel good; or at least less alone in my own darker reflections for my time spent in these characters’ company. 

So, if you don’t want to miss one of the best-calibrated productions to hit the stage this year, you have until April 9th to join the Goodmans for this unforgettable emotional roller coaster. Those who see themselves as closer to normal than not may have a lot to learn from the experience of getting up close and personal with a family that is anything but typical, while those who are more intimate with strangeness and with sorrow may find some welcome commiseration or even a hint of hope.

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