Arts and Culture Editor
Next to Normal at The Fulton chronicles the lives of the Goodman’s who may seem like your average American family, but examined much deeper they have complications and hardships that eventually reach the height of tragedy. The story centers on Diana (Anne Tolpegin) who struggles with Bipolar Disorder . Her husband, Dan (Jeffrey Coon) is trying to help his wife get the care she needs, while also striving to be a supportive and present husband and father to his daughter Natalie (Abigail Isom). Natalie is a high school student and piano prodigy who feels detached from her family, and especially her mother who treats her like she is not there. Diana also deals with visions of her dead son, Gabe (Devin Lewis) who haunts her constantly. The family isn’t perfect, but throughout the show they try their best to live their lives day by day.
Anne Tolpegin brings a startling realism to Diana. Portraying anyone with a disability can easily fall into a cartoon or exaggeration, yet Tolpegin never plays Diana as a victim, but instead as someone just trying to do her very best with what cards she has been dealt. She sings Tom Kitt rock score with verve and palpable emotion. She acts each song with a raw urgency as in the song “You Don’t Know” as Diana tries to tell her husband that although he can try to empathize, he can never truly understand what she goes through. This number is performed by Tolpegin with the fierce power of a woman just trying to hold on to the life she has. The book by Brian Yorkey and the score by Kitt explore this idea in the song “I Miss The Mountains ” as Diana after being on many medications, misses the day where she can feel emotions and being alive. Tolpegin keeps an incredibly real chemistry with the rest of the cast and commands this show and production.
Jeffrey Coon brings an everyman quality to the character of Dan that makes his fragile relationship with Diana brim with dramatic weight. Coon’s Dan clearly wants the best for his wife, yet is constantly brought away from her when Gabe’s spirit comes back to haunt her. This complicates after her therapist, Dr. Madden tries to bring back memories of her son so she can begin healing. Coon is an actor who sings and brings a heart that flows through the rest of the production. The care the character gives to his family shines through Coon’s heartfelt and tender performance. This is especially true in the act one finale, “Light in the Dark” as Dan reassures his wife about going through electric shock therapy. Coon brings a tenderness to this song that ends Act 1 on an emotionally resonant note. His performance is filled with a fully realized humanity.
Abigail Isom brings a blast of angst and potency to the production as Natalie. She starts out the show frustrated that her mother doesn’t really give her an outpouring of affection, and she is constantly stressed by her music. Yet, when a boy from school named Henry (Alex Walton) comes into her life, she suddenly finds in him a romantic partner and a friend. Henry is a bit of a loser, yet he brings novelty to Natalie’s life, as he safely allows her to experiment with drugs and rebels a bit. Isom captures Natalie’s arc very adeptly, as the character goes from being tense and wound up to suddenly liberated and free when she meets Henry. Isom gives an edge to Natalie that is well realized.
Other standouts include Allen E. Read as Doctor Madden/Doctor Fine, Lewis in a chilling performance as Gabe and Walton as Henry. Read brings a sense of calm and reassurance as Dr. Madden. The actor gets to have some fun in his opening sequences as the character of Diana imagines him as a rock star. These humorous moments bring some levity to this very serious show. Walton’s Henry also brings a welcome dose of comedic relief as he tries to loosen Natalie up and bring some happiness to her life. His warm presence is felt in his reprises of the song “Hey” which Walton sings with a tenderness that is sensitive and kind.
Lewis’s Gabe on the other hand at times is absolutely terrifying as he is portrayed in this production as a manipulative force on the family. The Gabe character largely appears in the minds of Diana, Natalie, and in a devastating sequence even Dan. Lewis’s devilish spirit for the character walks the fine line of being dangerous, yet also alluring enough to understand why Diana’s memories keep returning back to him. This is especially seen in the song “I’m Alive” in how Gabe sings about how his soul will never leave as long as Diana continues to grieve. The cast is spectacular as they all give a level of realism that is rarely seen in musical theatre.
This raw quality also extends to the creative elements which walks the fine line of heightened emotions and reality. William James Mohney’s set design is minimalistic with the audience almost in the round with fragments of a house which include two doors, some stairs, pictures and windows by the audience. This disjointed house effectively represents the broken state of the family and Diana’s mind. The sparse set is given much magnitude from Jeff Cusano’s transporting lighting. They alternate between stadium style lights, and at one point strobes for the rock inspired songs, and stark softer lights for the more quiet moments. Cusano’s lights bring a world that is simultaneously in the stylized musical theatre vocabulary and the reality of life itself. The band is also very strong with excellent music direction by Garrett Taylor. Special mention must also be given to the superb sound design by Matthew Moran as every lyric is clear and the rock music manages to be powerful without being overpowering to the ear. This is no small feat with such a small playing space.
Last, but certainly not least, the direction and choreography by Paige Price is endlessly engaging as the piece moves at an engaging clip that has the audience at the edge of their seats. There is not too much choreography per-se, but the blocking fits each character well and the director draws fully realized characterizations from the actors, and really engages the audience through eye catching stage pictures that never distract from the important story at hand. With moving performances, an extremely timely message on family, and a sensitive portrayal of mental illness, The Ellen Arnold’s Gross Studio series finale, Next to Normal is a light in the Lancaster theatre scene that is more resonant and universal than ever.