Teen critic Williams on ‘Next to Normal’ : New look, depth

Eleven Charlotte-area high school students are competing in the new theater criticism category of the Blumey Awards, the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ annual musical theater awards program (read more about that here.) Each student writes three reviews; the following is one entry:

“Day after day, we’ll find the will to find our way. Knowing that the darkest skies will someday see the sun.” The musical “Next to Normal” follows a woman struggling with mental disorder and highlights the effects her illness has on her family. “Next to Normal” won three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey provided the beautiful book and score that have moved audiences with complex characters, deep lyrics and a beyond-powerful story line.

The first question any fan of the show may have upon entering Central Cabarrus High School’s production is “Can high schoolers pull off such an emotionally heavy show?” For the most part, they can. Jenni Shaw does a fantastic job as Diana, the protagonist, who struggles with incomprehensible grief, depression and various other emotional disorders. Diana Goodman may be one of the most complex characters ever written for theater; any actress playing her must invest fully in her madness, a task which could not be easy for a high school student to accomplish. Yet, Shaw brought the audience to tears.

Jon Myers’s hard work was also evident with his performance of Dan, her husband, and Joshua Eli White was able to provide a little bit of comic relief in some of the heavier scenes as Henry, her son. An interesting choice was made in having Zack Tellier provide all of Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden’s spoken lines, while having A.J. Hilliard and the rest of the ensemble sing almost all of both doctors’ musical lines. While Tellier gave an excellent performance, it may have been better for the story’s sake to have had Hilliard play the doctors completely.

While this production has many impressive aspects to it, there are a few flaws. This show was written for six characters, while Central Cabarrus’ production features 19 actors – the main six, as well as an ensemble of thirteen. While this allows for more people to be involved in the show, it subtracts from the effect.

This show was written for six people to emphasize how Diana’s conflict affects everyone she’s close to, and the addition of the ensemble distracts the audience during major numbers such as “Just Another Day” and “A Light in the Dark.” However, the ensemble actually did work pretty well in “Wish I Were Here,” where their presence seemed to add to the plot. Musical director Joel C. King does deserve praise for his ability to take solo ballads and turn them into large ensemble numbers with perfect harmonies.