By Ashley Kinney
Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are just a few things to be found in Taking Flight Theatre Company’s production of “Next to Normal.”
“Next to Normal” tells the story of Diana Goodman, a mother suffering from bipolar disorder, and possibly more. As she tries various “cures” and ways to cope with her illness, her family, and those connected with it, fly in and out of focus. Everyone struggles, grasping towards a concept of “normal” they can’t achieve. Brian Yorkey’s rock lyrics emphasize this world turned on its head as we find out that this is anything but the “perfect, loving family.”
Taking Flight’s production makes some unique choices in terms of the art direction. A cartoonish house takes up the majority of the stage. Light glows through the various windows and mirrors in the house, creating some interesting stage images. Having some characters visible through a window on the top level of the house also contributes nicely to the layers onstage. There is also the use of a projector screen as Diana tries various medical combinations, slipping further and further out of control. The colorful images, reminiscent of the original Willy Wonka movie, add to the disconcerting situation onstage.
Unfortunately, in the attempt to portray a fully furnished house on a small stage, the house seems a bit overcrowded at times, causing the actors to block each other. There is a bed that remains onstage for the whole show, and is only used in the opening number.
The show truly shines through the cast. All six of the cast members can sing, most extremely well. The harmonies are, more often than not, simply beautiful and strongly sung. While over half of the cast is new to Taking Flight, all of them have impressive theatrical resumes.
Holly McDade gives a strong performance as Diana, almost deceptively so. At times, one may wish for a varied performance in terms of emotional range, but just have patience. As the circumstances in Diana’s life drastically change, so does McDade’s performance. It’s not that she withholds her emotion; it’s that she chooses her moments carefully. As the show goes on, she portrays not only the depression from her frustrating circumstances, but an intensity and childlike innocence. This seems to leave the audience more and more impressed.
And you’d have to have the emotional range of a rock not to love Claire O’Brien as Diana’s daughter Natalie, and Michael Bigley as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry. O’Brien and Bigley team up with adorable chemistry as the perfectionist who finally cracks and the lovable stoner who just doesn’t give up. O’Brien gives an extremely strong performance throughout, particularly vocally, and avoids the easy trap of portraying Natalie as merely a whiny 16 year old. Bigley wins the audience and gains some well-earned laughs during his song “Perfect For You”, hitting his awkwardly comic moments perfectly.
“Next to Normal” is an intrinsically emotional show, but that only makes it more difficult to perform. Taking Flight’s company really works to make the audience feel the frustration Diana and her family face as she relapses. One of the main themes, which seems to be, “Perfect isn’t achievable,” may not leave the audience warm and fuzzy inside, but it’s true. Perfect isn’t achievable, but that’s okay. You can still survive, and you can still find a way to eventually be happy.
“Next to Normal” plays for six more performances, on June 3rd, 8th, 9th, 10th, 15th, and 16th. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 pm, Sunday performances are at 7 pm. They perform in the Waddell Theater on the NOVA campus in Sterling. For more information, visit tftheatre.org.