Psychological Rock Musical “next to normal” Radiates a Beacon of Hope in the Darkness

Zoetic Stage “Next to Normal” cast, photo by Justin Namon

Often when we see victims of trauma, especially in the media, it’s often delivered with an air of bravery— commending someone for being so brave and strong to continue on after the unimaginable happens to them. For many of us, continuing on is not about an act of bravery or reveling in victimization but taking every day one day at a time. Not every day will be a strong day and not every day will feel normal. As the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning musical “Next to Normal” posits through the lens of its central character Diana Goodman, a suburban housewife who is shaken to the core after a traumatic incident stemming from her firstborn child. The show lays the claim that life may never truly feel normal when an event changes it, but to continue to go on close to a perceived normal, means getting to move on. Zoetic Stage’s “next to normal” is playing now at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater until April 9, with tickets available here

As the crowd ushers into the Carnival Studio Theater, there is a singular gray armchair flanked by risers where the audience sits. With a black box theater setup, rather than the traditional space where musicals play, the daytime television feel of the space brings the audience into the world of the show with not a single bad view of the space. A black floor with white lightning stripes across it evokes the imagery of electricity and brain waves. The house lights dim as Diana, played by Jeni Hacker takes center stage. I previously saw Hacker in the Zoetic Stage production of “Side by Side by Sondheim” which displayed her incredible vocal range to tackle Sondheim’s work. In “next to normal,” Hacker tackles an undeniably difficult acting challenge, to play a housewife diagnosed with bipolar disorder dealing with grief that has to be rooted in a humanistic quality. Diana is one part unreliable narrator, another part victim of circumstance whom the show revolves around, as evidenced by the show’s blocking placing her at the center of the action nearly the entire run. In her Diana, there is a sense of urgency from Hacker’s performance that makes the emotional beats fully powerful. Emerging from the darkness, bathed in a red light is her child Gabe, who derides Diana’s paranoia over him coming home in the early morning. Gabe, played by Nate Promkul approaches the role of the dashing eighteen-year old with a youthful charisma that makes the emotional turn in the show so warranted. With the role originated by Aaron Tveit both off-Broadway and on Broadway, Promkul leads with the arresting charm that Tveit built so much into the character with soaring high notes and even at the darkest moments feel like “everything a mother would love” description.

Opening with the ensemble song “Just Another Day,” the black curtains open to reveal the massive upside down house set. David Goldstein’s brilliant house design works both to reinforce the family’s dysfunctional home and service for characters to emerge within the scene. With lighting setups evoking a surrealistic hospital, the trees in the window of a home at sunset, and rock concert lighting, Preston Bircher uses the Carnival Studio Stage’s lighting rig to evoke a litany of environments. The father of the family Dan, performed by Ben Sandomir as the tired patriarch attempting to keep the fabric of Diana’s psyche from unraveling. Sandomir nails each beat of Dan’s arch with a commanding baritenor. Combining a blend of indie rock and musical theater, music writer Tom Kitt, who has tackled many rock musicals from Green Day’s “American Idiot” to most recently, the musical adaptation of “Almost Famous,” Kitt creates intricate motifs for moments and characters. Daughter Natalie played Gabi Gonzales provides an emotional foil for Diana, not only as an overachieving yet angst-ridden teenager but as an extension of Diana herself. Having seen Gonzales previously as Yitzhak in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” there is a similarity to both characters. As Hedwig lashes out onto Yitzhak, with the same vitriol she was given by the people in her life, Natalie perpetuates a cycle of prescription drugs and falling quickly into young love as Diana had many years ago, the realization of which frightens Natalie. Cycles of family trauma are a major theme of the show, as Diana mentions her “high-spirited” mother, potentially alluding to undiagnosed mental illness and dealing with the nuclear family. 

With its overarching delve into the world of mental illness, the show sees actor Robert Koutras initially playing Dr. Fine, Diana’s psychopharmacologist. As he prescribes and diagnoses Diana through her various stages of PTSD, the clinical nature of the role is given some lightness. Though “next to normal” has a very dramatic oeuvre in tackling deep subjects, there are moments of levity that work well in disarming the viewer’s edge. Koutras takes liberties with the libretto of the show, switching between a Harold Hill-esque medicine man with almost cartoonish line deliveries and movement, and a maudlin doctor reaching into the roots of Diana’s troubles. As her resistance to the medication persists (a cocktail of valium, lithium, zoloft set to a pastiche of “My Favorite Things”), Dr. Fine becomes “rock star” Dr. Madden, Diana’s second psychiatrist. When Koutras plays Madden, there are the far campier moments that come absolutely out of nowhere, but as evidenced by the song “Make Up Your Mind” he is more than capable of delivering a calculated, serious performance. Natalie’s romantic interest, Henry, is described in the book of the show as a “Romantic. Stoner. Slacker. Philosopher king.” and Joseph Morell, a recent Boston Conservatory at Berklee Grad plays the role with a laissez-faire chill and a shocking amount of vocal clarity compared to the cast recording. 

Librettist Brian Yorkey originally wrote the show as a skit in 1998 with Tom Kitt under the title “Feeling Electric.” Over the years through various readings, dropping the project and returning to it while working on other pieces, Yorkey and Kitt returned in 2008 with an off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theater, working through the show again at Arena Stage in Virginia, finally making its way to Broadway at the more intimate Booth Theater in 2009. While the show closed in 2011, its North American tour had never come to South Florida. Miami-based Zoetic Stage hits a stride in this production, under the direction of Stuart Meltzer, taking what could have been an otherwise cut and dry rendition of the show and transforming the black box space into this upside-down world of Diana’s psyche and planting the performances in the sweet spot of grim humor and grueling pathos. Meltzer finds the tone squarely in the place of an early 2000s dark comedy, somewhere between “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” With a heavy rock and folk influenced score, the show is definitely more approachable for the casual musical fan to get into. 

My very first introduction to “next to normal” was in 2021, when I saw production of it in Palm Beach. I had gone in entirely blind to the show, not knowing a single song or even the general plot of the show. It was one of the first productions I saw post pandemic and while a gritty medical drama may have been poignant, it is not at all escapist theater. The finale of “Light” sees the cast reunite on stage as each of the character’s journeys wrap up and while yes it compelled a wellspring of tears from me, I did not leave the theater feeling dejected. While “next to normal” may rely on deep emotions, it is a show that confronts the viewers with a more hopeful message. Out of all the darkness and inner turmoil that a person or a family or even the world may go through, you can find your way down the stairs and out of the hallway. All you have to do is turn on the light. Zoetic Stage’s “next to normal” is playing now at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater until April 9, with tickets available here

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