"next to normal" sings the song of life and acceptance at the Redhouse

Ian Jordan Subsara and Laura Austin in the Redhouse's production of "Next to Normal" (Photo by Jessie Dobrzynski)  next to normal

Who: The Redhouse

Where: 201 S West St, Syracuse, NY

Review by Nick Reichert

Broadway musicals have historically been events of  campiness and melodious delight. Shows such as Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, The Music Man and Kiss Me, Kate are full of feel good showstoppers that would define the first fifty years of the Broadway show tune sound.

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the musical composers of the Great White Way began to adapt and respond to the tumult of the era that was gripped by the Vietnam War, the Sexual Revolution and the Kennedy Assassination. The musical shifted from  simply entertainment to thoughtful reflections of the issues of the day. Groundbreaking musicals such as Cabaret, Hair, A Chorus Line, Company, and Rent examine the dark underbelly of society’s ills set to a hummable beat.

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s 2009 musical next to normal is a descendent of these serious musicals, focusing on the 21st century’s  obsession with mental illness plagued by a rainbow of pharmaceuticals. The Redhouse’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning show is a match made in theatrical bliss. With a company constantly conscious of improving the Syracuse community, combined with a piece as honest, frank and passionate as next to normal, Stephen Svoboda’s production is an electric jolt of theatre.

next to normal focuses on the inner emotional and psychological climate of the Goodman family, in an attempt to define “crazy” for the 21st century. story revolves around the mother of the Goodman clan, Diana (played with stirring vulnerability by Laura Austin) who combats schizophrenia caused by the untimely death of her infant son Gabe (Ian Jordan Subsara). She still sees and interacts with Gabe as though he never died.

Jason Timothy, Ian Jordan Subsara and Laura Austin in the Redhouse's production of "Next to Normal" (Photo by Jessie Dobrzynski)

Diana’s “crazy” behavior  has a detrimental effect on her husband Dan (John Keckeisen) and daughter Emma (Kate Metroka). Dan yearns and strives to help Diana overcome her condition through constant appointments with psychologists Dr. Fine and later Dr. Madden (both played by Jason Timothy) that result in electro shock therapy which causes her memories to vanish. And Emma deals with her family's internal drama through her newfound gateway boyfriend Henry (Tim Murray).

However, some memories (great and tragic) cannot just be simply erased, no matter how hard doctors, drugs and treatments try. And it is this sense of ambiguity and complexity, even amongst a set design (designed by Tim Brown) dominated by clear large windows and white staircases, that elevates this production above standard musical fare.

The ensemble took every opportunity in each note, song and scene to peel back the raw humanity of each character. Austin’s embodiment of a beleaguered woman who has lost a child and possibly her mind gleamed with a truthfulness rarely seen and in a role that could have easily been consumed by impersonations and stereotypes of “craziness.”

Keckeisen’s portrayal conflicted husband and father Dan consumed the audience like a rising ocean tide. Dan’s battle to save the wife that is slowly splintering in front of him while maintaining his own sanity is extraordinary. Keckeisen’s gentle voice and wondrous delivery soaked the audience in the salty taste of their own tears.

Redhouse’s production of next to normal is an experience that is simultaneously entertaining and thought provoking and is performed by an ensemble that strikes at the very core of theatrical performance. They are living and breaking in a cacophony of light and song and serves justice to those society dismisses as “crazy.” It is theatre at its best:  a love song to the human condition.