On Music Theatre of Connecticut’s (MTC) studio theater stage is a family. Diana (played by Juliet Lambert Pratt) is up worrying about her kids. Her son Gabe, played by Logan Hart, glides home late, brushing off his mother’s concern like every young adult testing the tether of parental control. Diane sends Gabe off stage before his Dad, Dan (played by Will Erat) pops in to check on what all the commotion is about. Next in the room is daughter Natalie, played by Elissa DeMaria, who’s up well into the night to tackle her onslaught of homework.
It seems like a normal (if slightly stressed) family. “It’s just another day,” the cast sings, as they ready themselves to face the new morning. A tapestry of harmonies cradles the audience. “We’re the perfect loving family,” Diana sings, seemingly to convince herself. She’s juggling so much but, she promises, “I will keep the plates all spinning.” Suddenly, for Diana, the room is spinning. Dan helps her up from the floor—where she’d been making sandwiches—and in the abrupt silence, a sense of panic fills the room. This opening number so perfectly establishes the Next to Normal experience: just when you think you know what’s going on, the floor drops out from under you.
With music by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the rock musical reveals Diana’s struggle with bipolar disorder, and how its effects ripple to those around her. How can the family hold itself together when Diana seems to be loosing grasp? Directed by Kevin Connors, with stage management by Jim Schilling, and musical direction by David Wolfson, the show is performed in MTC’s intimate forty-five seat theater.
If you’re looking for a night of passive entertainment, head home and fire up the DVR. MTC presents a challenging, thought-provoking show. With the cast mere feet away, it feels life you’re eavesdropping on a real family, not a handful of actors. Their chemistry is one you can’t fake. “It’s pretty rare to experience that with a cast, where you feels like it’s working,” agrees Westport-raised Jacob Heimer, who plays Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend. That sense of synergy for the cast was essential, considering that the entire rehearsal process took ten days. With the show’s moving songs, biting dialogue, and subtle shared glances, you’d think the cast had months to rehearse.
Each actor breaths life into the characters with nuanced performances. Will Erat’s Dan is not a silently suffering husband. He deftly teeters between frustration and tenderness. As Natalie, Elissa DeMaria strives to be the perfect daughter and student—something Fairfield County teenagers can certainly relate to. Her drive is keenly felt in her performance of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” As Henry, Jacob Heimer’s smooth voice romances Natalie with “Perfect for You.” Endearing and at times sweetly goofy, Heimer allows the audience momentary breaths of fresh air. Logan Hart infuses his performance of Gabe with a crackle of electricity. Often stalking in the fringes of a scene, he alternates between roles of his mother’s protector, and an antagonistic figure towards the other players. Tommy Foster tackles the challenge of a dual role head-on. He crafts two distinct personalities (the slightly zany Dr. Fine, happy to prescribe Diana a laundry list of drugs, and the soft-voiced, empathetic Dr. Madden).
Much of the challenge of the show falls to Juliet Lambert Pratt, playing Diana. Pratt, simply put, is mesmerizing. Her rich voice send chills, soaring through songs like “I Miss the Mountains,” a lament on how an over-medicated Diana misses the emotional peaks and valleys of her disorder. She just as skillfully projects Diana’s frustration and anger, flinging barbs at Dan during “You Don’t Know.” Even her smallest actions—a teary glint in her eye, the hesitant lifting of a music box lid—paint a layered, complex portrait of a woman struggling down to her soul.
Next to Normal’s sold-out run continues through November 4th. For more information on Music Theatre of Connecticut’s season, visit musictheatreofct.com.
Jacob Heimer and Elissa DeMaria