Fort Salem Surprises with a Rare, Loving and Vital “Next to Normal”

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There is a family falling apart in a fabulous fashion on the Fort Salem Theatre these days. In “Next to Normal” by composer Tom Kitt and writer Brian Yorkey, the audience is treated to a couple of harsh expletives early in the show as Mom is struggling to manage her manic-depressive episodes in the terrific opening number “Just Another Day.” Mental health and its attendant treatments and repercussions within a family are the unlikely subjects of this 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning musical.

It is a great credit to the musical and this production that the mental health issues are treated comprehensively and that while there are numerous instances of humor derived from Diana’s (Rebecca Paige) condition like her making sandwiches for a platoon or imagining her Psychopharmacologist as a rock star the subject is never poked fun at. We are plunged into a family crisis and all the secrets, anger and abandonment felt is given full voice by this fantastic cast.

Photo by Kyle West

Rebecca Paige is awakening to the condition she is grappling with and is made all the more pitiable by her searching, loving gestures of reaching out to only have her reality ripped away from her. Her tender, comforting intro to the show’s anthem “I Miss the Mountains” made for an affecting, seamless transition to a very naturally grand expression rather than this song’s sometimes showy heights. Playing her husband Dan, Sam Luke offers solid support all night until his strength is tested and he breaks, full-faced in front of us. That this fraught subject with a rock score does not become bitter is in large part due to this couple’s loving performances. Gabe is most energetically played by Noah Casner and he takes the banger “I’m Alive” and rides it for all it’s worth. A live wire with incandescent energy.

Noah Heimbach plays Henry, a high school suitor to Diana’s daughter Natalie. He’s as charming as a stoned jazzbo as you would want for your daughter and when he shows up in formal wear, it gives the show one of its hopeful grace touches. Area veteran Marc Christopher plays Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden and he does a terrific job, as always, effortlessly pivoting from satirical comment on his scenes to real therapeutic ministering. When he offers Dan a referral at the end of the show it underlines the musical and Marc’s successful portrayal about the need for all of us to pay attention to our mental health. Once again, as with “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” I was very grateful to be watching a, very different, Kallie Ann Tarkleson performance. She gets the majority of the evening’s laughs as the put-upon teenager who feels ignored and her reactions to the box of memories her dad drags out are priceless.

Photo by Kyle West

Director and choreographer Kyle West keeps the evening moving at an appropriately quick pace as the musical is a shade too long and the seats are tight. Musical director John Norine Jr. has done an exemplary job with this superlative cast of voices. Their singing all night long was never less than accomplished and when they sang together on the penultimate “Light,” it was glorious! Of course, a live band would be preferable but Mr. Lorine’s work as sound designer with the backing track was exceptional, his lighting could use some more coverage. The set was an interesting and serviceable frame of a house with platforms creating different levels upstage right. There was a battleship of a couch that threatened to sink stage left and effectively limited any movement on that side of the stage.

It has certainly been a highlight and most welcome surprise of this re-emergence summer to have a revitalized theatre producing high quality shows in this nearly remote location. Kudos to Jared and Kyle West on all their terrific work and scheduling this musical. Fort Salem’s “Next to Normal” is an exquisitely performed, urgently needed celebration of life, survival and love. It is eminently worthy of your attendance and support.

Through 8/1

Tickets available www.FortSalem.com

Photo by Kyle West
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