NEXT TO NORMALMusic by Tom Kitt
Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Upright Theatre Co.
Directed by Natalie Burkhart
Music Director – Noël Clark
Stage Manager – Taylor Ray Donaldson
Tango/Waltz Choreography – Jake & Brandy Raper
Scenic Design/Carpenter – Conor Clark
Properties Design – Megan Guerra
Costume Design – Jourdain Blanco
Lighting Design – Branson White
Sound Design – Natalie Burkhart
Assistant Sound Designer – Mary Ridenour
Mic Operator – Mary Ridenour
Jericho Thomas – Dan Goodman
Brandy Raper – Diana Goodman
Levi Skoog – Gabe Goodman
Katelyn Sarbach – Natalie Goodman
Nick McGeoy – Henry
Jacob Waters – Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden
Reviewed Performance: 9/10/2022
Reviewed by Chris Hauge, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“I’ll meet you at the bottom if it really is the one they always tell you when you hit it you’ll know it. But I’ve been falling so long, it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m just floatin’.”
As the musical begins and we meet the Goodman family, we discover that they have been falling (floating) for almost seventeen years. But, at this point in their lives, the bottom appears to be looming large. In the song “Just Another Day,” we watch as mother Diana (Brandy Raper), father Dan (Jericho Thomas), son Gabe (Levi Skoog), and daughter Natalie (Katelyn Sarbach) prepare to leave the house to take on the day. Diana hurriedly makes sandwiches for everyone and in a frenzy moves to the floor, manically piling bread on top of cheese, and it is then glaringly clear what was being hinted at through the opening number. All is not well.
Diana is suffering from extreme mental illness, seeing two doctors (both played by Jacob Waters), taking medications, and as is always the case, the rest of the family suffers with her. Her husband, Dan, doesn't understand her and wonders if the love they once felt for each other still exists. Natalie feels that her mother doesn’t even know she exists as a daughter, drowns herself in scholastic achievement, experiences her first glimpses of love with Henry (Nick McGeoy), a stoner fellow student, and later, medicates her despair and anger with drugs.
And towering over all of this turmoil is the son Gabe. He is the epicenter of this emotional maelstrom. Diana’s obsession with him locks her into a cycle of uncertainty and fear. Dan’s refusal to acknowledge Gabe’s history blinds him to paths that may lead the family to a better future. And Natalie feels smothered by her brother’s existence and shut out of her mother’s love as heartbreakingly expressed in the song, “Superboy and The Invisible Girl.”
So, we have a play about mental illness, depression, family dysfunction, medical ethics, suicide, and drug use. “Why would I want to spend an evening watching this?” you might ask.
Because Upright Theatre Co. has taken the excellent script of Brian Yorkey, fortified, and buoyed by the compelling music of Tom Kitt, and under the direction of Natalie Burkhart, with her marvelous cast of actors and solid design team, has produced one of the most powerful and emotionally impactful shows of the year.
Brian Yorkey’s script deals with its subject with clarity and sensitivity. While he doesn’t wrap everything up in a bright pink ribbon at the end (life rarely turns out that way), he offers up the possibility that love and persistence may lead to a place of peace and, to quote the title of the final song, “Light.” The music moves from plaintive ballads to guitar-driven screes which amplifies and supports the emotional structure of the play. Music director Noël Clark has coached the actors’ singing performances extremely well and they perform flawlessly with the pre-recorded music.
This is the second show that I have seen at Upright Theatre co., and I am amazed at how they are able to construct functional sets in such constrained quarters. The area designed by Conor Clark allows easy scene shifts and includes a second level (albeit small, but still very usable). The lights of Branson White do a great job of filling the stage area and facilitating changes in mood. Kudos also go to costume designer Jourdain Blanco for helping make the characters believable and complete.
Natalie Burkhart has kept the pace of the show crisp and precise. She has also assembled a strong cast of actors, and before I concentrate on individual performances, I would like to applaud the cast’s complete commitment to the material and their dedication to performing as an ensemble. Their acting and singing mesh together beautifully, and it is in their work that we see fully realized people onstage going through this story of mental and familial strife, and we root for them to survive because we genuinely believe in them.
As Diana, Brandy Raper is to be commended for stepping fully into the skin of this character. Her pain is palpable and her longing for the love she lost and the love she craves is plain for all of us to see. Ms. Raper’s ability to sing Diana’s sadness and, at times, rage without letting it overwhelm her is remarkable. A moment where Diana is breaking down and flailing away at a table is especially memorable and I admire the talent required to make that real without doing permanent damage to herself. With this role, Brandy Raper has proven herself a lovely singer and is an actress I hope to see again in the future.
As the floundering husband, Dan, Jericho Thomas projects all of the doubts and fear swirling within him with abject reality. Singing of his hopes for the marriage, Mr. Thomas holds his wedding ring finger and you’re not sure if he is protecting the ring to keep it from disappearing or if he is going to take it off and fling it away. His strong singing voice embodies Dan’s conflict in a convincing and heartfelt manner. He personifies a line from the ending song, “The price of love is loss, but we still pay, we love anyway.”
Natalie Goodman drives herself to distraction to get her mother’s attention and love, and Katelyn Sarbach gives the character the appropriate brashness and vulnerability. With his vigorous singing voice and piercing eyes, Levi Skoog exudes tenderness and menace as Gabe. His portrayal makes it clear why Gabe has such a hold on the family dynamics. Nick McGeoy gives a kind of stoner/puppy dog feel to Henry that is very appealing and his singing in the song, “Perfect for You” is very touching. Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden are played by Jacob Waters, and he makes both of them distinct and real. Mr. Waters gets some gorgeous moments to sing, and he credibly portrays both the authority of a physician, and the underlying, and disquieting, knowledge that medical science can only do so much.
Upright Theatre Co. is a fairly new addition to the area’s theatre community and is proving itself to be a wonderful asset. Founded in 2020, just in time to welcome in the worldwide pandemic, I am happy to report that the Company has not only survived but appears to be thriving and continuing to produce first-class productions. My experience with them was last year’s “The Last Five Years,” an achingly beautiful play about the dissolution of a relationship. Upright Theatre Co.’s present production manages the subject of mental illness with the same care, quality of production, and attention to emotional authenticity I saw in the previous show.
Please travel to Euless and pay a visit to our new kid on the block. “Next to Normal” may prove to be a rough ride, but Upright Theatre Co. will treat you with care. And, at the end of the night you, like the Goodman family onstage, may also experience peace and light.
Upright Theatre Co.
September 2 – 25, 2022
Friday – Saturday – 7:30PM
Sunday – 3:00PM
2501 N. Main Street, Suite 210, Euless, TX 76039
For tickets and further information, visit them on the Web at