Review: Wallace Buice’s “Next to Normal” exposes the human psyche

by Jody Key – Managing Editor

We often go to the theater to escape. Lighthearted musicals can take us away from our troubles for a time. Conversely, we can go to the theater to explore lives similar to our own and be immersed in raw experiences which stir the core of our beings. One such experience, Wallace Buice Theatre Company’s Next to Normal opened this past Friday to a receptive and captive audience. This study of one family’s encounter with mental illness dares its audience to look inside their souls and explore where inner demons emerge and reside.

Our country is facing a mental health crisis. We see it in the news and feel it in ourselves or those we love. The statistics are overwhelming. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 1 in every 5 adults experience mental illness, with 1 in every 25 diagnosed with a serious mental illness. This topic is explored and exposed in Next to Normal, a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical which wowed Broadway audiences in 2009 is the story of the Goodman Family: Dan and Diana, their daughter, Natalie and son Gabe. The family’s life rotates around its central character, Diana, who is officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, yet it becomes clear there may also be a manifestation of schizophrenia as well. In addition to the family are the characters of Henry, Natalie’s persistent love interest, as well as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden, the well-meaning professionals attempting to treat Diana’s case.

Diana’s disorder was triggered in her 20s as a result of emotional trauma. She’s been suffering for 16 years and relying on psychopharmaceuticals to help her cope with her manic-depressive mood swings. In this latest bout of episodes, she eventually undergoes electric shock therapy in an attempt to alleviate her symptoms. Lisa Reich as Diana approaches this difficult part with her whole heart and soul. Her performance conveys Diana’s hopes, fears, worries, struggles, and final realization that her mental health is in her hands. Reich is returning to the stage after a hiatus of 10 years. We hope to see more of her work in the future.

Dan, the ever faithful husband, strives to be the wind beneath Diana’s wings. He does everything he can to help his wife recover with hopeful, yet misplaced codependency. Bryant Smith’s portrayal of Dan is brilliant. Audiences will recognize him as Jean ValJean in Aurora’s Les Miserables, and will marvel at his rich vocals and heartfelt performance.

Natalie is a high-achieving teenager who feels trapped in the struggles her family endures. She acts as the voice of reason among the chaos and is surprisingly resilient given her circumstances. Fresh off her unforgettable role as Lucille Frank in Parade, Maggie Salley plays the daughter who sees herself as a child lost in the shuffle. Maggie delivers a stellar performance with heartfelt conviction and all the markings of teenage angst and skepticism. Her delivery of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” along with Haden Rider was the musical highlight of the evening.

The Goodman’s son, Gabe adds continuity to the story and is the driving force in the family. Once again, Haden Rider’s performance exceeds audience expectations. This Suzy Bass and Broadway World award-winning actor tackles the part of the ever-present son in what is probably his most emotionally demanding role to date. Whenever Rider enters the stage, his larger than life presence can be felt, which is exactly what this role calls for.

Henry does his best to woo Natalie, feeling he’s perfect for her, and Ben Fierke is perfect for the part of Henry. A newcomer to the ATL professional theatre scene, Fierke is a recent graduate of Gainesville Theatre Alliance. His charm and good looks are punctuated by a smooth and powerful singing voice. Ben turns in an authentic performance, and the chemistry between Henry and Natalie is endearing. Fierke is definitely someone to keep an eye on in the ATL.

Mental Health professionals Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden do their best to “cure” Diana through the marvels of modern medicine. Adam Lebow plays both parts and his stage presence and professionalism transfers to both characters. Lebow has an impressive resume, with national stage and screen credits. His compassionate bedside manner and beautiful vocals add a more human and caring side to what could be portrayed as a cold and aloof character.

Taylor Buice’s reputation as a top-notch director precedes him, and Wallace Buice Theatre’s reputation as a company that dares to deliver compelling, important, and socially relevant works to the ATL is evident in this production. In addition to his thought-provoking stage direction, Buice has assembled a top-notch technical team.

Under the musical direction of Harry N. Haines, the rock orchestra backs up the opinion that live musical elements add to the theater experience. It’s always enjoyable to hear live music backing up amazing vocals.

Chloe Cordle’s choreography brings the music to life. While this show is not heavy on choreography, what it has punctuates the musical numbers beautifully and powerfully

Zach Vandever’s set comprised of exposed beam construction evokes the feeling of those skeletons in the closet which torment Diana’s psyche. The set transforms convincingly into other settings as well–a piano practice studio, a therapist’s office, and a hospital room to name a few.

Tara O’Neill’s lighting design evokes the proper emotions for each scene and is flawless in its execution.

Amy Levin’s job as sound designer is a balancing act as she works to mix microphones with a live rock band in a small space. Kudos to Amy for a challenging job done well.

With so much theater to take in during the month of February, it’s hard to know what to choose. Speakeysie recommends you add this to the top of your list and get your tickets soon, as Taylor Buice’s productions sell out quickly.

Next to Normal plays at the Windmill Arts Center in East Point, GA from February 8-24. Get your tickets at wallacebuicetheatre.com or call 800-838-3006.

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