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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Free Play’s ‘Next to Normal’ overwhelms and impresses

Published: April 27, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

I have to be honest: I walked into Schwartz thinking I would hate Free Play’s production of “Next To Normal.” “Next To Normal” is one of my favorite musicals, and I actually saw it on Broadway about a year and a half ago, a month before it closed. When I saw it, I started sobbing about halfway through the show and did not stop until 10 minutes after the show had ended. When I walked into the same hall as my neuro lectures, all I could think was, “God help Free Play if they think they can even try to make me cry like that again.”

Well, I didn’t cry tonight, but I was one of a few who didn’t tear up at tonight’s performance.
In “Next to Normal,” Diana (Abigail Clarke ’12) and Dan (Justy Kosek ’14) are the parents of Natalie (Sarah Hines ’15) and Gabe (Jared Greenberg ’12), both difficult teenagers. Diana suffers from bipolar disorder. The entire show is about her and the rest of her family continuously fighting for and against her disease. While doing this, each of them try to figure out what they each want separately from Diana. The musical illustrates the very different ways Dan and Natalie deal with her, as well as the different ways Diana tries to get cured.

This synopsis is intentionally vague because much of the show is the flow of the storyline and the songs used to illustrate it, and that is something Free Play pulls off very well. “Next to Normal” is the type of show that transitions from song to song rather than relying on segues in dialogue to begin a song. This type of production is particularly hard to pull off because a lot of action is needed to keep the stage from being dull, and David Benger ’14 does a very good job at keeping his actors busy.

Whether the characters are setting up the kitchen table, mimicking a therapy session or pretending to be a rock star—the body language of the actors alone was phenomenal. Additionally, the flow of the action combined with the flow of the songs kept the audience invested in the show, not even having time to applaud after a majority of the songs. By the time Clarke was singing “I Dreamed a Dance,” tears were falling.

Abigail Clarke, you lovely woman. This role was made for her. It is a very difficult role. Diana is a very complex character suffering from a mental illness. She has to portray the correct balance of unstable and vulnerable to be a sympathetic character or to even be believable, and that is exactly what Clarke did. From the very first song, “Just Another Day,” she draws the audience in with simply how authentic she is in her role. And that’s not to mention her voice. Clarke definitely shone in this performance, hitting every note that was thrown at her, and fleshing out every feeling in every song. When the audience cried and kept crying, it was a testament to how beautifully Diana was played.

Clarke was also in very good company. The family was very well casted, as was Dotan Horowitz ’12 as Diana’s psychologist and Nick Maletta ’13 as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend. With a cast of six, the chemistry among them was exceptional, which translated into incredibly powerful songs. Their acting was spot-on, and their singing was even better. Projection at times was a little off—Schwartz hall doesn’t have the best acoustics—but overall, the actors did well and Brian Yorkey’s beautiful lyrics were understood. I did have a couple issues with Kosek’s abilities to hit high notes at certain moments, but this was easily shrugged off when Clarke made her way back on stage.

Another notable part of the production is the music supplied by the five-person orchestra. Bryan Belok ’12 did a great job with the music, and it was fantastic to see playing the piano and bouncing around while conducting the songs. A very good addition to the orchestra was junior Gloria Park’s cello playing, which lent itself to a lot of the emotion felt in the show. Again, because the show was essentially one song after another, it was crucial to have a strong orchestra and under Belok’s direction, they delivered.

Free Play did an amazing job with their interpretation of “Next To Normal.” They were able to keep their intimate setting and do-it-yourself feel while keeping the spirit of the show alive. Whether it is the bare set of four chairs and a table, or Greenberg’s very faithful portrayal of Gab—each decision made was the right one. Rarely do I praise a show this highly, but this production deserves it. See “Next To Normal” this weekend: Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 8 p.m. at Schwartz Hall.