by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Players by the Sea opened a two-weekend run of the Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama for 2010, “Next to Normal.” This play was nominated for eleven Tony Awards in 2009 and was selected for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration, and Best Performance by an Actress in a musical. It ran for 733 attendance-setting performances on Broadway before closing in January 2011.
When the rights became available, Executive Director Joe Schwarz and Players’ board members jumped at the chance to produce it even though their season for 2011-2012 was set. Since the musical deals with mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, and since about 6 percent of Americans live with a serious mental illness according to the National Institute for Mental Health, Players wanted to mount a first-class production and reach out to the entire North Florida area with the message of this poignant musical. The support of several sponsors made this possible: Florida State College at Jacksonville; Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida; The Weaver Family Foundation; and Wekiva Springs Center and River Point Behavioral Health.
If you are a musical theatre fan, don’t expect to see what we typically associate with this genre, lots of laughs, singing, and dancing. “Next to Normal” is a ground-breaking musical, as original and critically acclaimed as “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story,” and “Sweeney Todd.”
The show is a portrait of a Diana Goodman, a suburban mother with bipolar disease, and her family. The accompanying depression, delusional episodes and mood swings have persisted for many years and are worsening. She is treated with pills, hypnosis and eventually electroshock therapy in a seemingly never-ending quest to find peace and a normal life.
As critics we saw the original in New York a couple of years ago, and can say without reservation that Players’ cast is as good as any you could find on any stage in the country. As Diana, Leslie Richart is dynamic and truly outstanding. Local theatre-goers already knew she could sing. Since arriving in Jacksonville in 2009 she has appeared in a string of musicals in various roles, in productions of “Tommy,” “The Great American Trailer Park,” “Parade,” “The Taffetas,” and “Pippin.” In this exceptionally demanding role, her marvelous voice and acting are spellbinding.
Erik Anthony DeCicco is Dan Goodman, Diana’s husband, who lovingly supports his wife as she struggles to manage the demands of daily life and undergoes various treatments to try to arrest her illness. DeCicco has a phenomenal voice; one minute he can be belting out a song that will raise the roof, in the next he will tear your heart out with a tender ballad. Mr. Decicco has a MFA in acting, and is an Artist in Residence at his Alma mater, Jacksonville University and is also on staff at Players by the Sea School of the Arts, as an instructor.
Katie Sacks sparkles as Natalie Goodman, the daughter, who is experiencing the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, along with trying to cope with her mother’s erratic behavior, while fearing that she has inherited the disease and faces an uncertain future. Ms Sacks is a freshman at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, but her stage experience and singing skills are mature and exceptional for a performer her age, as she demonstrated in the leading role of Kira, in “Xanadu” at Players.
Daniel Prill is Gabe Goodman, the son who has a special relationship with his mother and her illness. Prill is a senior dance major at Jacksonville University, and also has an excellent voice and can sing up a storm. Mr. Prill is a very charismatic performer in this unique role.
Chris Robertson plays Henry, Natalie’s first boyfriend and his attentiveness is a calming factor in the turmoil of her existence. Robertson’s glorious voice is well known to local theatre-goers and we remember vividly his outstanding portrayal of Tobias in “Sweeney Todd.” He is a Douglas Anderson graduate, now a freshman at Jacksonville University, and we will be seeing much more of this talented actor/singer in the future.
Dominic Windsor, the final member of the cast, has two roles, as Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, physicians with different approaches to assisting Diana with controlling the symptoms of her illness. He has a superb voice and was very believable in both roles. Windsor relocated to Jacksonville in March 2011 but already has three Alhambra shows on his resume, which also includes the National Tour of CATS.
Samuel Fisher, the play’s Director, is a name we predict you will be seeing frequently in theatre programs over the next few years. A Jacksonville native who grew up around theatre, he went off to study at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the California Institute of the Arts. He has an impressive resume that includes extensive work in all aspects of theatre production. Cast members we talked to had high praise for Sam’s insightful and definitive direction of “Next to Normal.”
Bryant Miano as Music Director is on keyboard for this show, while leading a seven piece band that played to perfection. Mr. Miano has become a much in demand musician and musical director in the North Florida theatre scene.
Vocal Director Matt Morgan, after establishing himself as a successful opera singer in New York, has made the Jacksonville area his home. He is currently is on the faculty of Jacksonville University and is Players’ Resident Vocal Coach.
The costumes by Sally Pettegrew include everyday suburban clothes, which includes colorful purple and turquoise for the adolescent Natalie, along with business suits for the psychiatrists, and formal wear for a dance.
One of the reasons Wilson Center was used for this production was the availability of the Studio Theatre. The script calls for a three story set, and Set Designer Tom Armstrong achieved this by using the catwalk as the third story. The set is built with timbered uprights and is sparsely furnished, a look that is consistent with the New York production.
Another plus for the Wilson center is the truly intimate feel of the production. If you sit in the front row (the seats are all general admission), there are times when you will be no further than six feet from the actors. There is something special about seeing every emotion on the faces of the actors and we mean every smile and every frown.
“Next to Normal” is described as a rock musical, and although many of the songs are in that genre, you can always understand the words. There are some soulful ballads and even a waltz. The band is up on a platform behind the audience and all the actors are expertly miked by Sound Designer Patrick Richart and Sound Technician Scott Collins.
The brilliant music is by Tom Kitt with lyrics by playwright Brian Yorkey. Many playwrights base their works on life experiences; in this case, neither of the creators had any bipolar relatives or friends but they researched the subject extensively with many professionals in order to accurately present the realities of this devastating disease.
“Next to Normal” is a very moving evening of theatre, and a number of audience members were moved to tears. You may find it helpful to bring some tissues. It is an exceptional theatre experience that you won’t want to miss. Reservations are highly recommended for the remaining performances which end on February 5 with a matinee. At $25.00 a ticket it is truly a bargain, as this production with its inspired cast and soaring is very special. All performances are on the South Campus of FSCJ, in the Nathan H. Wilson Center for the Arts, at 11901 Beach Boulevard. Visit playersbythesea.org or call 249-0289 for reservations.
NEXT TO NORMAL
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM