Syracuse Stage opened the Tony Award winning musical “Next to Normal” on January 24th and it’s no wonder it also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It doesn’t take long for the show to hit you with the serious stuff, even if its peppy opening number “Just Another Day” tries to trick you with its normalcy.
The banter over a son coming home late, the concern over a daughter overworking herself, and the jokes about mom and dad having excellent morning sex are a thin guise for the underlying family issues. Director Robert Hupp does a solid job of creating the happy family illusion for the audience only to rip it away as Judy McLane’s Diana, a seemingly perfect housewife, goes from chipper to manic in the span of one song and plunges us into a world of mental illness before our seats are even warm.
The pace of the opening was strong and timed beautifully with Shoko Kambara’s cleverly crafted sliding door set. A simple frame of a house, a table with a lamp, a kitchen table and chairs give the impression of a home without the clutter to distract from the acting. The movement of the doors helps keep the energy up and it was impressive to see actors moving set pieces with such ease and without it detracting from their characters.
Musical Director Brian Cimmet clearly had his work cut out for him with little dialogue throughout and a show heavy on the singing. Despite some sound system issues making company numbers difficult to hear and some work needed on harmonizing, the cast maintained a high level of energy in every song and the raw, often painful, emotions came through clearly and heartbreakingly. Overall, Hupp and Cimmet did a nice job with the casting. Each member of this ensemble cast shined at various moments.
Sara Masterson’s Natalie had just the right amount of teen angst to make her interesting without being annoying, but often her storming out to her room during painful moments seemed more contrived than genuine. She really shined during “Perfect for You,” a tender moment with Henry the boy at school who is massively crushing on her. Vocally, Tyler Fauntleroy is well-suited for the role of Henry, but comes off a little too cool. It would have been nice to see a little more of the teen awkwardness that Masterson brought to her character reflected in Henry.
McLane gives a powerful performance during her more emotionally charged songs, but seemed uncomfortable with the more light-hearted moments. Overall, she did a really nice job creating a conflicted, damaged character trying to love, be loved and at times simply survive. Her great chemistry with Glenn Seven Allen, her on-stage husband, really helped to make their relationship struggles feel real and even more painful. Allen really stood out with his no fear approach to both his acting and singing, making every moment seem genuine.
Syracuse Stage, yet again, put up a really strong production. You might walk away with a heavier heart, but “Next to Normal” is well worth the ticket price to experience high quality acting and singing and a fun night out!