Sunday, September 16, 2012

Steel River Playhouse’s ‘Next to Normal’ is extraordinary

Gregory Kasander, Steven Burke and Denise Webb in  "Next to Normal"              Photos by John Daggett

By Cheryl Thornburg

You don’t have to go to New York or Philly to see great theater. Steel River Playhouse’s production of the Pulitzer-winning rock musical ‘Next to Normal’ is a good as it gets.
It’s easy to see why it won a Pulitzer with its powerful musical dialogue and intensely personal subject matter – mental illness, suicide and drug abuse.
To pull off a production with such complex music and raw emotional scenes, it takes a talented cast, and this one is not just talented, it’s gifted.
Gregory Kasander and Denise Webb
Since virtually all of the dialogue is sung, the actors must have great voices and since the storyline is so intense and personal, they must be great actors as well, especially in the close-quarters of the Newberry Loft performing space at Steel River.
The play is an intimate look at the Goodman family and the effect the mother’s battle with bipolar disorder has on everyone involved.
Denise Webb delivers a riveting performance as Diana, the mother, as she struggles to battle her demons with various treatments. The role requires amazing range and control both vocally and emotionally -- and Webb delivers on both counts. Her rendition of “I Miss The Mountains, “ is haunting and memorable. Her Diana is so real, it feels like you’ve met her somewhere.
Many of the actors are young – the roles of the son, daughter and her boyfriend – are all played by area high school students – but you’d never know it by the maturity and professionalism they demonstrate on stage.
Drew Carr and Maddie Aicher
Maddie Aicher, a sophomore at Owen J. Roberts High School, is so believable as Natalie, the frustrated and vulnerable teenager, that you just want to give her a hug and tell her everything will be all right after she sings about being “The Invisible Girl.” Her clear soprano blends exquisitely in her duet “Perfect for You,“ with her somewhat shy boyfriend Henry, played by Drew Carr, who is a senior at Spring-Ford Area High School. The chemistry between the two will bring back memories of the awkward beginnings of young love.
In contrast to Carr’s subdued character is Steven Burke as the son, Gabe, as he exuberantly takes command of the stage in numbers such as “I’m Alive.” Carr is a senior at Upper Merion High School.
Completing the family is Gregory Kasander as the father, Dan Goodman. Kasander has the look of the overwrought caregiver down pat, as he desperately tries keep everything as normal as possible for the family. Whether he’s cajoling Diana to bring her out of a funk, or sitting on the sidelines looking pale and exhausted, his pain is palpable.
One of the most poignant and powerful scenes in the show comes in the closing act as he and Burke deliver a toe-to-toe father-son duet that is striking in its emotional intensity as well as its imagery.
Denise Webb and Kevin Ray Johnson
Rounding out the cast is Kevin Ray Johnson playing different psychiatrists who treat Diana. His powerful voice contributes to many of the group numbers in the show, but what was really impressive was his timing, particularly when he switched character practically in mid-sentence from reality to Diana’s Rock Star delusion of him.
Director Kevin Laibson has found the perfect cast and guided them to deliver one of the most “real” performances I have ever seen. You come away caring about these people and wondering what happened to them down the road.
Music direction for the show is by Deborah Snow. Barbara Newberry directed the live orchestra that perfectly backed up the vocalists without overpowering them.
One thing to note, is that the dialogue includes the “F”-word numerous times, so it may be offensive to some audience members. That coarse dialogue though, is what makes the show so real and evocative of today’s society. The language and subject matter makes this show not suitable for young children.
Remaining performances of “Next to Normal” will be Sundays Sept. 16 and 23 at 3 pm. and Friday Sept. 21 and Saturday Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. at Steel River Playhouse (formerly Tri-County Performing Arts Center), 245 East High St. in Pottstown.
Some of the performances are already sold out, so call for reservations at 610-970-1199. Tickets bought online at are the same price as tickets purchased at the box office. Single ticket prices are $19 for adults,  $17 for seniors (65+) and $10 for students. There are two changes in ticketing policy this season; groups of 10 or more get a higher discount – $3 off per ticket.


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