If you are on a long, long road trip and find yourself wandering roads that don’t lead to where you’re going and you feel just a little bit lost there is just one thing to do.
Go back to where you started.
That’s what All In Productions has done with an absolutely riveting production of “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize winning musical from 2010.
This production, under the smart and brave direction of Tim Backes and the spectacular music direction of Julie Johnson, is a gripping, muscular show carried fearlessly by a cast of six actors.
All In began its life in December of 2014 with a powerful and inventive production of “The Last Five Years,” the kind of play you rarely see in Milwaukee. It was met with universal critical acclaim and at the time I wrote: The company is All Productions and they opened their life with a stirring mounting of “The Last 5 Years,” the quirky and intelligent musical by Jason Robert Brown. This production is a perfect example of the wondrous power of live theater.”
Since that time the company has delivered some very good productions but has also had a couple of things that held little interest – the trite “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Wild Party” a very sexy musical that All In turned into an evening of boredom.
It seemed as if the company was headed down a road that would keep it in the atmosphere of good community theater companies, but couldn’t compete on a professional level.
So much for that misguided road trip.
This production, with actors I’ve never heard or seen before, is the kind of show that can match anything else you may see in Milwaukee this season.
It starts, of course, with the play.
It’s the story of a mother, Diana Goodman (Carrie Gray), who is bipolar and who grows more and more troubled as the play moves. She is married to Dan (Steve Pfisterer) and mother to Natalie (Hailey Hentz). There is also a son, Gabe (Austin Dorman) who died at the age of 18 months, a trauma that precipitated Diana’s descent into a kind of madness.
The first sign of madness is the compulsive preparation of sandwiches for her daughter to take to school. Two pieces of bread and a slab of processed cheese. Over and over and over as the tension builds. Will she ever stop this? Why doesn’t Dan do something. And why is Natalie so profoundly angry at her mother and father.
The level of Diana’s disoriented life grows, with a subtle ferocity that has an ever-increasing impact on the family. Natalie is full of anxiety and finds herself drawn to Henry (Connor Dalzin), a classmate who has carried a torch for years.Dan tries to accommodate his wife but grows increasingly uncertain about what actions to take, or not take.
Diana, after taking a boatload of drugs, professes to not feel anything anymore, is pronounced stable by her doctor, (Adam Qutaishat).
There was a palpable focus in the audience as we all watched this disintegration and the quiet horrors visited on this group of people who were far, far from normal. It was a message that bipolar disorder was contagious, although not a psychiatrist in the world would agree with that.
The music by Tom Kitt and the lyrics by Brian Yorkey (who also wrote the book) are difficult. Ms. Johnson has a very deft touch, wringing with both precision and emotion out of her actors.
One of the most interesting roles in the play is that of Gabe, the son who was only alive as an infant. He is played as a shadow character here, a figure of his mother’s imagination with Diana singing to him, Dan denying his presence, and Natalie unsure of what to think.
For Diana, he is a present member of the family. So much so that she has baked a cake and decorated it with candles each birthday since his death.
Mr. Dorman is spectacular. He slips and slides through the marvelous two-level set by Mitch Weindorf. And you can tell that he is really just maintaining his eerie presence in his mother’s skewed mind. Mr. Dorman sings well and uses his body like conductor’s baton in keeping the whole thing going.
As Diana, Ms. Gray is a wonderful new face on the horizon. She wrings both the pathos and idiosyncrasy out of her troubled self. Her voice trembles with the realization of her pains and her lust for the son whom she never raised. There is no doubt about where she is in life, the only question is whether anything can be done to save her and her family from her demons.
Ms. Gray has been seen in many community theaters around Milwaukee and let’s hope that she moves up into some of the major theaters in town.
Mr. Pfisterer has a ripe tenor and is vivid in the portrayal of his gradual paralysis from fear. He’s afraid of his wife, afraid of his daughter, afraid, even of himself. His face showed every single worry, each stab of pain, the accumulation of doubts and crushed hopes and grabbed the audience and cried out for a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.
Ms. Hentz was a stunning surprise. She is a sophomore at UWM and is a doppelganger for Taylor Swift, except the pop princess never sang with the kind of emotion and expression that Ms. Hentz has. She was angry, sad, perplexed, anxious, flirtatious and depressed at different times. She’s got a voice that cuts to the heart and was the first one to draw tears during the evening.
Mr. Dalzin and Mr. Qutaishat each had special moments that provided both moments of humor and moments of defined and serious gravitas.
There is nothing quite so delightful in the theater as seeing a cast new to you in a play full of meaning and a company at the very top if its game.
That combination served All In and the audience very well.
Production credits: Director, Tim Backes; Music Director Julie Johnson; Stage Manager Kathy Staats; ASM/Deci Chief, Jessica Betts; Set Designer, Mitch Weindorf; Costume Designer, Christy Siebers; Lighting Designer, MikeVan Dreser; Sound Designer/Engineer, D. Buckles; Master Carpenter, Tom Backes; Dramaturg, Nancy Backes; Graphic Designer, Brian Bzdawka; Production Manager/Assistant Director, Robby McGhee.
“Next to Normal” runs through September 16 and information on tickets and showtimes is available at http://www.nextact.org.