A Sweet Dream of Sanity at the NFCT

Kelli Baumann as Diana in NFCT's new production of "Next to Normal"
Kelli Baumann as Diana in NFCT’s new production of “Next to Normal”

Few among us can boast that our lives have been perfectly normal, particularly during the years we, or our children, were teenagers. But when mom’s a haunted manic depressive, “normalcy” becomes both code for an impossible dream and a cruel joke belying the reality that normal is anything but.

“Next To Normal,” playing at Mattituck’s North Fork Community Theatre through Feb. 4, was the winner of three Tony Awards during its Broadway run in 2009, including Best Musical Score by Tom Kitt with lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

James Stevens and Kelli Baumann in NFCT's production of "Next to Normal"
James Stevens and Kelli Baumann as Dan and Diana in NFCT’s production of “Next to Normal”

This non-stop rock opera calls for some serious vocal chops. With no less than 37 musical numbers, “Next to Normal” is a story told almost entirely in song, demanding tight harmonies, intertwining vocal lines, a high-stamina pit orchestra and the emotional punch demanded by a story about mental illness.

The play opens on just another day in the home of our normal family — it’s 3 a.m. and teenage son Gabe sneaks home after-hours to find his mother, Diana, sitting awake at the kitchen table mulling over all the ways he could have died when he didn’t show up on time. As she shoos him off to bed, daughter Natalie comes down to the kitchen with her calculus homework and a canned energy drink, fretting about her overwhelming schoolwork. When the commotion wakes up Dad (Dan), Diana shoos him off to bed, promising sex.

By the time the school bus comes, Diana is so worked up that she’s making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the kitchen floor. Dan hurries the horrified kids off to the school bus and takes off from work to drive his wife to the shrink. And their somewhat normal lives enter a downward spiral from there.

Ava Bianchi as Natalie and Eric Hughes as Henry discuss Natalie's strange family.
Ava Bianchi as Natalie and Eric Hughes as Henry discuss Natalie’s strange family.

Director Jessica Raven, whose most recent directorial effort was the excellent 2016 RFCT production of “Catch Me If You Can,” coaxes fine performances out of this entire cast.

Southold High School chorus teacher Kelli Baumann would have stolen the show as Diana even if she didn’t have such fine vocal chops. From manic housewife to seductress to depressed and brooding mother, her bipolar character demands an empathic soul. Her eyes give her away — twinkling with the mania, deadened with depression, she’s feeling this role, every bit of the way.

Zachary Zain, making his NFCT debut as son Gabe, is the holder of the family secrets, a sinister filial presence that drags this show deeper into madness.

An array of white-coated doctors with prescription pills and zany instructions keep the material from getting too heavy — there’s even a choreographed number involving a rolling hospital bed, electric shock therapy, and jokes about Sylvia Plath and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But these numbers don’t exist for comic relief. They exist to send the audience with Diana on her path to madness, sending us all down a rabbit hole.

This play lives somewhere between the realm of The Who’s “Tommy” and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, complete with clattering forks, plates and knives, and a birthday cake for someone who isn’t alive.

James Stevens is tender and searching as dad Dan, a loving husband lost in the family he created, a soul adrift in a world in which he is expected to hold everything together.

Zachary Zain as Gabe
Zachary Zain as Gabe

Two different actresses play daughter Natalie — Ava Bianchi on Jan. 20 & 26 and Feb. 3, and Sydnee LaBuda at all other performances. On Jan. 20, Ms. Bianchi took the stage, a sweet and brooding Mozart-lover who wishes, for once, that her mom would stay sane long enough to make it to her recital at school.

When a jazz-loving stoner listens in at her practice room door, she’s at first perturbed. But she quickly falls in love with Henry, a tender young man played by Eric Hughes, whom you may have seen two summers ago in the great lead role of Bobby Strong in NFCT’s Youth on Stage production of “Urinetown.”

There are echoes of madness in Natalie’s behavior, and there are echoes of Dan in Henry’s commitment to her, in spite of her crazy family.

By midway through this show, you find yourself seeing each of these characters in the others — mother and daughter, father and husband and son.

“Next to Normal” is about the persistence of patterns, and the acceptance that, sometimes, all there is to do is get up and face another day.

Somehow, through story told in song, and in spite of the difficult material, that message gets through. It’s as clear as a brisk, cold morning, with mom at the front door with a lunch bag hurrying the kids, and the school bus coming down the street to meet their new day.

Performances of “Next to Normal” continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Feb. 4.

A fundraiser for mental heath awareness will be held at the Friday, Jan. 26 performance, with proceeds from raffles and certain refreshment stand items benefiting the “Response” crisis center.

Tickets are $25. Student rush tickets ($20) may be available 10 minutes before curtain time. For more information, visit www.nfct.com or call 631.298.6328.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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