May 1-10, the Triangle welcomed the Tony Award winning musical, Next to Normal, to North Carolina Theatre. Playing thirteen shows over the course of two weeks, Next to Normal tells the story of a mother’s struggle with mental illness, and the profound impact it has on her family.
Diana Goodman, played by North Carolina’s own Lauren Kennedy (Les Miserables; Fantine), has suffered from bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies for over sixteen years. While she attempts to live a normal lifestyle, her manic episodes and frequent delusions overtake her ability to function as a “normal” mother. Throughout the story she is seemingly only close to her eighteen year old son, Gabe (Mike Schwitter) – who appears almost invisible to the rest of his family.
Meanwhile, Dan Goodman (Charlie Pollock), serves as the male head of household, trying to cope with his wife’s problems, while balancing his own chaotic mind. Influenced by both of her parents, and standout star of the show is Natalie Goodman, played by Raleigh native English Bernhardt.
Bernhardt, only just having graduated from Ravenscroft last year, has already had numerous standout roles with the NC Theatre Conservatory. She received rave reviews for her depiction of Eponine in Les Miserables last year, and she was most recently seen in the workshop/lab for Pasek & Paul’s new musical, Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Michael Greif.
And in spite of every swear word and sexual reference in the show, clearly directed towards a younger group, even the majority of the elderly audience found themselves singing and laughing along with every passionate rock and roll based melody.
As a completely biased lover of this musical, and having only listened to the Broadway soundtrack before last Sunday, the show was captivating. A simple set and contrasted lighting provided the ideal backdrop for a family with a dynamic that was constantly changing. The music was modern and intense, eerie lullabies morphed into hard rock rants. The intimacy of Fletcher Theatre at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts was perfect for this raw reflection on dysfunctional family dynamics.
Mike Schwitter, who played Gabe Goodman, was another superstar of the show. Gabe is an abrasive son, one who is constantly fighting to keep his mother close. He is afraid of losing her and his character is well-developed throughout the show. His solo “I”m Alive” is a fan favorite, layered with an overwhelming drum bass and lyrics that make you think twice.
There is no doubt, however, the entire cast brought life and love to their characters. The theatre was abuzz with energy and excitement, even more so after the shows when the cast came out into the lobby to talk with fans, taking the time to have genuine discussions. Larger than life theatre productions are always an enjoyable spectacle, but this intimate and smaller show left a lasting mental impact.