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Saturday, September 8, 2012

CenterStage Brings an “Abundance of Power” to the Louisville Premiere of Next to Normal


“Sing a Song of Forgetting” Lauren McCombs (Natalie), Jeremy Moon (Dan),
Melissa Shepherd (Diana), from Next to Normal. Photo courtesy of CenterStage.

Next to Normal

Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by John R. Leffert

A review by Kate Barry

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kate Barry. All rights reserved

Tonight, I had the chance to catch the regional premier of Next to Normal, a Broadway play that was nominated for numerous Tonys and earned a Pulitzer Prize. This emotional musical swept through the tiny audience at the CenterStage auditorium and definitely earned the standing ovation it received at curtain. With a small cast of superbly chosen actors, a creative set that resembles that from Broadway and a rainbow of color, this production is filled with an abundance of power.

The play revolves around Diana, played by Melissa Shepherd. She is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is forever grief stricken. Ms. Shepherd is compelling as a seemingly ordinary housewife who is continually reaching out to the memory of someone who isn’t there. Scared, depressed and manic, Shepherd absolutely nails down every emotion in the bipolar spectrum with every note she belts. Some of her best work within the show is in “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I,” a send of the medical profession; a musical soliloquy about regret and longing “I Miss the Mountains”; and Diana’s hopeless “Catch Me I’m Falling.”

Diana is the matriarch in a family that is slowly crumbling apart. As Diana’s husband, Dan, Jeremy Moon is desperately trying to be hopeful. Selfless, giving and compassionate, Moon shines in his duets with Shepherd, “Song of Forgetting,” “How Could I Ever Forget” and “A Light in the Dark.” The harmony is matched by Dan and Diana’s conflict as a husband desperately tries to save his wife and family.

Lauren McCombs plays their daughter, Natalie. Ignored and angry, McCombs added a cynical, bitter and sweet portrayal of a teenager who just wanted a normal life. Her duet with Shepherd’s character in the latter part of the play, “Why Stay”, provides a juxtaposition of Diana’s battle with mental illness and Natalie’s fear of going down that same road. The song that sticks out in my mind regarding McCombs performance is “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” in which Natalie’s anger explodes.

And then we come to Gabe, played with such an energetic liveliness by Robbie Lewis. Without a doubt, his rendition of “I’m Alive” has been on repeat in my head since I left the theater. As Gabe, Lewis is a symbol of regretful hope for Dan and Diana. Without giving too much away about the Gabe character, since his relationship with Diana is extremely important to the show, it’s safe to say that Lewis’s portrayal is haunting without being too over the top and subtle without being too discreet.

I was really scared to review this musical about a family who is suffering with mental illness, grief and assorted dysfunctions. How does one approach such heavy subject matter with a critical eye? Can one find flaws with a show of such emotional magnitude? Artistic Director, John Leffert and his production team have not put together a ritzy song-and-dance show with a laugh a minute and boy meets girl mentalities. With Next to Normal, CenterStage has delicately pieced together a courageous and ambitious performance that will leave an impression.

Next to Normal

JCC CenterStage
September 6-16
Linker Auditorium
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205
502-238-2739

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