Kith & Kin Artistic Director, Kimberly Laberge, brings another challenging musical drama to a Milwaukee area stage with Next To Normal. The musical’s book and lyrics were written by Brian Yorkey with the rock music by Tom Kitt. Next To Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama.
This is the second time that I have experienced theater in the charming and inviting Interchange Theater Co-op’s black box theater. And this time, the room was filled with rock music telling a very difficult but engaging drama. We meet a very contemporary American family, mother, father, son, and daughter. And they have a secret…or maybe not a secret…but a dynamic that they are trying to gloss over until they can’t anymore.
So let’s meet our family! Diana Goodman is the mother, and at K&K she is played by Wendy Rightler. Her loving and supportive husband, Dan, is played by Patrick Jones. Sanaa Harper is their somewhat distant but determined daughter, Natalie and Daniel Bingham plays her brother Gabriel. There are two other cast members, Cory J O’Donnell who plays Natalie’s love interest and Justin Spanbauer who plays the part of two different doctors.
Diana and Dan married relatively young and apparently very much in love. But Diana is struggling with a number of mental health issues…struggling for about sixteen years. Wendy Rightler’s portrayal of Diana is spot on throughout as Diana passes from lucidity to a bit of depression to confusion and back around. And Wendy’s vocals here are incredible…this is a particularly challenging role emotionally as well as vocally. Diana has the majority of the singing parts here. One of the family ‘secrets’ is how serious Diana’s illness can be at times…and Wendy’s performance here let’s us feel all of it and we wish we could intercede at some point.
Dan, as played by Patrick Jones, is desperately in love with Diana and struggles with her struggles. And he is willing to help and support her in any and every way that he can. And although he thinks he feels her pain, Diana lets him know that he just doesn’t quite get it. Patrick lets us see how Dan is feeling, his intense need to help, and his loss and frustration at his lack of success.
And our teen-age love interest? Sanaa Harper playing Natalie is a challenging and very determined teen with a goal and path clearly in mind…but she feels that she is on her own. Until Cory J O’Donnell as Henry strolls into her life. Of course there is the initial hesitancy, some on and off again moments, and little personal victories along the way. Sanaa and Cory were the ideal casting to represent this couple…and Sanaa can really effectively belt out the songs than bring us into the heart of soul of Natalie.
And then we have Gabriel…Daniel Bingham is absolutely amazing here. Gabriel has a key role in Next To Normal and Daniel inhabits it directly. His fluid movements across stage invest the character with the necessary presence and attitude. And his interactions with Diana and Dan are linchpin moments in the story…I don’t want to say more here.
And is there a doctor in the house? Well yes, there are actually two, both played by Justin Spanbauer in very very different guises!
Next To Normal is a hard charging rock musical with surprising little dialogue. And the cast members each have the range and strengths best suited their parts and characters. But the rock band is off to the left of the audience, side stage, but at stage level…and they are just too loud at times and the some very important vocal content got lost for me…particularly during ensemble numbers like the opening scene.
But kudos to director Kimberly Laberge and stage manager Brianna Cullen…the motion and interaction…on movements on and off stage…are so smooth and easy that the audience doesn’t actually catch notice. And normally a good lighting director goes unnoticed because the lighting works, but I noticed Erin Dillon’s lighting on Saturday night because it really works!!!
Kith & Kin is a relatively new theater group in Milwaukee, and you can read more about them here.
Complete disclosures: Kimberly Laberge and Brianna Cullen are personal friends. And the photos here were stolen from Kith & Kin posts on social media but I have been told that all photos are courtesy of Adam Harrison..