REVIEW: NEXT TO NORMAL at Titusville Playhouse

Guest Critic

Ten thoughts about “Next to Normal” at Titusville Playhouse, if I can fit everything that’s gone through my mind since last night into 10 thoughts:

1. The set is perfect. When He Who Accompanies Georgette (a mental health professional who has seen the show on Broadway) first eyed it, he said, “Oh my God, that is it! It’s like my office chairs from Ikea: no character. Perfect!”

Moments later, up rolled artistic director Steven J. Heron, an absolute hero for doing this show, and he said it was supposed to look “Ikea-sterile.” The explosion of prescription drug bottles on the back wall says everything about this play. Or my house.

2. The sound is perfect. If you’ve had cause to be frustrated by those dead spots at the Emma Parrish Theatre, listen again. They’re gone, after MAJOR adjustments. You can hear everything, and the music is spot-on.

3. The scene transitions are perfect. No one misses a beat and there are no extraneous props to be moved. No time is wasted.

4. The direction is perfect. See #3 and add “powerful but restrained performances by every actor on the stage.” Under a hand less committed than Heron’s, this musical about the consequences of mental illness and how it is treated could devolve into a certain sort of madness of its own. It doesn’t. This is Heron’s master work.

5. Natalie Palmer is perfect. She is Diana, the wife and mother beset by what now is termed “bipolar I with psychotic features.” She is delusional yet feeling, and highly intelligent. You feel for this woman every moment of the play. Singing, acting, moving; it is an extraordinary performance by Palmer.

From Titusville Playhouse's NEXT TO NORMAL. Photo by Niko Stamos

From Titusville Playhouse’s NEXT TO NORMAL. Photo by Niko Stamos

6. Paul Padilla is perfect. He is Dan, the husband and father who is losing his wife to drugs and disease, and possibly losing his daughter as well. He brings masculine sensitivity to the character, and if you’ve ever cared for a mentally ill person, you understand him perfectly: He is not indifferent, but wants his loved one’s pain to be alleviated somehow, with as little stress to her as possible. This is another Disney actor. Bring on more Disney actors.

7. Melinda Lebo and Dennis Pisarz are perfect. They are Natalie and Henry, Dan and Diana’s Mozart-playing daughter and her stoner – but loving and understanding – boyfriend Henry. They bring smart-alecky, but never obnoxious, sweetness to the play, and do it with magnificent understatement and fine voices.

Alexander Browne and Natalie Palmer in Titusville Playhouse's production of NEXT TO NORMAL. Photo by Niko Stamos.

Alexander Browne and Natalie Palmer in Titusville Playhouse’s production of NEXT TO NORMAL. Photo by Niko Stamos.

8. Alexander Browne is perfect. He plays Diana’s doctors, Fine and Madden (Great names, yes?) with what at first seems like that “I-know-what-to-do” attitude some mental health professionals cop before they really talk to their patients, and in this case, ‘what to do” involves a long list of medications. In the end, you understand the doctors too, though; They’re not really buffoons, but as stumped as anyone else, and willing to listen.

9. Ethan Rich is perfect. That name went into the spell-checker last night because I am convinced it is going to turn up on this keyboard a lot in the future. This 17-year-old, soon-to-be high school graduate is mesmerizing as Gabe, with the presence of a veteran actor, intimidated by nothing, including this monumentally intimidating role. Look for his name on Playbills to come, maybe in New York.

10. “Next to Normal” is perfect. It’s stunning, a tour de force for Titusville and Steven Heron. Go see it.

One more thought about “Next to Normal” if I may, and it has nothing to do with a review. This is a musical about a serious form of mental illness that requires serious forms of treatment. As was noted in the review, a mental health professional – a doctor of psychology who has taught the subject at three institutions of higher learning – sees each of these plays. This is from him:

“Bipolar I does not go away. It is not ameliorated or helped in any way by a nice chat over coffee at Starbucks or getting your head right at mom’s. I’m-okay-you’re-okay simply does not work here; this disease kills people.

“The play clearly expresses that Diana remains in treatment, and in the end, Dan accepts treatment as well. That is a positive message indeed.”