Stellar Performances Abound in Split Stage’s “Next to Normal”

By Eva Phillips

Selling audiences on a musical that delves into the excruciating morass a woman traverses as she faces grief, mental illness, a stymied marriage, and a romance, of sort, with a pharmacologist seems like a pretty daunting, if not impossible, feat. Veering catastrophically into the territory of tacky or egregiously offensive seems likely—being infinitely heart-wrenching and winning a Pulitzer Prize seems vastly less likely. And, yet, Brian Yorkey’s 2008 sensational hit Next to Normal is precisely that—devastatingly impactful, surprisingly funny and poignant, and, lest we forget, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The lyrically rich musical catapults audiences through the roof of the average middle American home as Diana Goodman rattles off her myriad symptoms, reactions to various medications, and the frenetic pace at which she tries to maintain normalcy, which often means having non-perfunctory sex with her husband, Dan Goodman, and maintaining the household around their two teenage children, neurotically overachieving Natalie, and endlessly brooding son Gabe, while trying to manage the unfathomable highs and lows of her bipolar disorder. 

Never a company to shy away from high drama and marvelous gallows humor in their production, Split Stage Productions is perhaps the ideal crew to tackle a show that deals all at once with bipolar disorder, cataclysmic mourning, existential teenage upheaval, suicide, pyschiatric and medicinal distress, and imagining that your psychiatrist is a scary, sexy rock star.  Staged at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center and helmed by fastidious and talented Director Laura Wurzell (who nimbly doubles as the show’s Choreographer), Split Stage’s Next to Normal meets and exceeds the great expectations set by the plucky and resourceful company.  

Although faced with some sporadically irksome technical issues–primarily sound cut-outs and over-amplifications with mics–Split Stage Productions has once again met, and perhaps surpassed, the precedent of performance excellence they routinely set with their innovative and winning productions. Split Stage’s adaption of next to normal is replete with a cast of phenomenal talents that facilitate in beautifully animating Director/Choreographer Laura Wurzell’s spectacular, adaptive vision.

Within the opening moments of Split Stage’s Next to Normal, we are not only fully enmeshed in the totally routine domestic anarchy of the Goodman household, but we are introduced (or reintroduced, for some) to the formidable talents of the exceptional cast. As our lead protagonist battling the incalculable and often debilitating vicissitudes of adult bipolar disorder mixed with traumatic grief (and mixed with the myriad other hardships and anguishes a woman faces on a “regular” basis), Meighan Lloyd Harding is dynamic as Diana. I am prone to be tendentiously critical of any performance of bipolar disorder–whether in a strictly dramatic context or in something more morosely comical as Next to Normal can be at times–and Harding’s performance is unimpeachable, relatably blending irascible charm/wit with aching confusion and frustration–and presenting it all with a powerful voice. Chad Grubb is electric as the Goodman’s son Gabe, and as he snarlingly stalks through the home, he manages to make a deeply troubled and VERY complicated character unbelievably endearing, and dazzles on knockout numbers like “I’m Alive.” The Goodman clan is relatively (and dangerously) insulated in their chaos, but Dan Mayhak is wonderfully engaging and warm as the affable, big-hearted stoner Henry who falls deeply in love with Natalie Goodman at the worst possible moment; and powerhouse Breanna Deutsch is unstoppable as ever as Diana’s various psychiatrists, Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, adding equal parts compassion and dry, clinical snark to the ensemble effort.

In an unequivocally “stacked” cast, Brady D. Patsy and Claire Stoller deserve exuberant commendation for their renderings of Dan and Natalie Goodman, respectively. Anyone vaguely familiar with Patsy’s oeuvre has an expectation of his robust and commanding performances, but his take on the husband who finds himself paralyzed in the existential quandary of “who’s crazy?” in a relationship defined by mental illness and loss, is one of his finest I’ve witnessed. Consistently awing with his stellar vocal range and overall mellifluousness, Patsy’s performance is a ceaseless gut-punch, brimming with humility and heartbreak, that lingers long after the powerful final notes of “Light.” And as Natalie, Stoller is an undeniable triumph, adroitly using every performance tool at her disposal to exquisitely vivify the daughter who painfully bears the brunt of her mother’s condition and her family’s turmoil. Stoller not only vocally delivers, but  also perfectly personifies Natalie’s various compulsions, fears, neuroses, and petrified longing and rage in every conceivable nuance ranging from physical tics to general demeanor. Her Natalie is exhilarating to behold.

Aided by the superb and well-mixed live orchestration conducted by Musical Director Eric Barchiesi (featuring Keyboard by Barchiesi, Violin by Larissa Marple, Guitar by Dave Minda, Bass by Julia Ihrig, and Drums by Jesse Walls), the cast of crew of Split Stage Production’s Next to Normal deliver a gripping and fantastically compelling theatrical experience. Though next to normal’s subject matter dealing with mental health, references to suicide and self-harm, loss, substance abuse and addiction is not suitable for all audiences, Split Stage has created yet another enthralling show that should be eagerly attended by any and all who are able.

Next to Normal plays at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center through February 15th. For tickets and more, visit Split Stage’s site

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