It was twilight as we pulled up to the front of the beautiful, historic Gamble House on opening night of Lineage’s production of “Next To Normal”. As grand as it is, with the light gently streaming through the nature scenes of the stained glass, one can almost smell the pot roast, see the steamed windows from the cooking and hear the comings and goings of a boisterous family within. It is very much a home and thus becomes a perfect and poignant setting for this shattering musical about a family coping with mental illness.
As the play begins, we see what appears to be a picture perfect family; mother, father, son, daughter, all going about the hustle and bustle of getting out the door on a school day morning. We see the stress, the love, the annoyance, the familiarity. And then, suddenly everyone stops, realizing mom is making sandwiches on the floor. And so begins our journey watching this mother try to figure out how to be “normal” as the family struggles to help her and cope with their own lives and identities within the family.
Lineage will soon be inaugurating a brand new theatre space, but as we are still in Covid times, this production was created in partnership with the Gamble House to be presented outside using the front steps, lawn, patios and balconies with a live orchestra and the audience in their cars, tuning in by radio transmission.
The space is innovatively used by directors, Rob Lewis and Hilary Thomas, as characters appeared on the upstairs balcony, made entrances and exits from behind the house and dancers appeared seemingly from everywhere. Thomas also serves as choreographer using, as they have in past productions, their in-house dance company to accentuate and elevate the internal emotions of the characters to moving effect.
The Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey score is staggering in the way it paints a vivid picture of a family’s spiral into the world of mental health and then guts you with the most emotionally pointed reprise. The cast handles the difficult score well and immediately draws you into their family relationships. Stephanie Lesh-Ferrell leads the cast as mother, Diana Goodman, and her raw vulnerability and feisty anger anchors the show. Paul Siemens, who Lineage audiences will remember as Jamie in “The Last Five Years”, gives an anguished and gut-wrenching portrayal of a husband and father hanging on to his wife and his promises to her perhaps too tightly for anyone’s good. Bobby Burkish is earnest and heartbreaking as the “Superboy” son while Jana Souza is all twisted teenage anxiety coupled with desperate longing as the long suffering daughter.
There is just incredible chemistry between all four of them with their pain on full display in songs like “Superboy and The Invisible Girl” and “Song of Forgetting”, while mother and son break your heart in two in “I Dreamed A Dance”. Speaking of chemistry, Sabin Shrestha as Henry helps create a couple you root for with Souza, and has an incredibly listenable voice that soars. Whenever he’s on stage you can’t take your eyes off of him. Rounding out the cast is the delightful Greg Safel who is tender and caring as the psychiatrist but who also gets to have a ball as the rockstar in Diana’s mind.
As the “Dancing Dianas”, dancers Brittany Daniels, Caterina Mercante, Ericalynn Priolo, Hilary Thomas, Teya Wolvington, and Meghann Zenor deftly move through the goings on, beautifully reflecting the tumult of Diana’s mind.
Whether you’ve seen the show before or not, don’t forget tissues or you’ll be left as I was, sobbing into my takeout napkins. It’s an incredibly powerful and sobering look at what it means to truly love one another, in all of our complexities, but ultimately, it is a story of tremendous hope.
For more information on Next To Normal and Lineage’s upcoming shows visit LineagePac.org