November 15, 2015

next to normal at Risley Theatre

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There are many things to love about next to normal, especially the production that took place at Risley last Thursday through Saturday. The play follows the Goodman family, whose matriarch, Diana, has been living with bipolar disorder for 16 years following the death of her infant son. Each member of the family experiences dramatic ups and downs, including Diana’s husband, Dan, who wonders if he’s crazy for holding onto hope, and Natalie, who is keenly aware of her mother’s obsession with her actual firstborn child. The contemporary rock soundtrack (played live by a very talented pit of student musicians split between Cornell and Ithaca College) was dynamic, diverse and moving, and in conjunction with the staging, minimalist set and lighting, next to normal at Risley was a fantastic production.

The first thing I noticed about next to normal was the overwhelming presence of students who don’t go to Cornell. The show was directed by Andy Gonzalez, a senior at Ithaca College, and five of the six-actor cast are students at IC as well. To explain the overlap between Cornell and IC theatre, I spoke to Rebecca Saber ’18, the stage manager of the production. “Because it’s student theatre, we are able to audition any student who wants to be part of a show,” she said. In addition to the actors and crew, many of the musicians come from Ithaca College.

It’s undoubtedly a good thing that next to normal brought in so much “outside” talent. The cast was simply phenomenal. Both Robin Mazer and Josh Wilde, who played the mother and father of the Goodman family, exuded believable maturity. Mazer’s voice was sweet and resonant, and Wilde’s was also just right for his part. But perhaps even more impressive than their voices was the emotional depth that Mazer and Wilde both brought to their roles. Mazer played Diana with just the right amount of lucidity. She didn’t overdramatize a role that could have easily been overdramatized, and that’s what I found compelling about her performance. On the other hand, Wilde tackled the challenge of playing the “stable” one exceedingly well. His moments of anguish were some of my favorites in the play; I could feel his crazed desperation to keep his marriage, his family and himself together through all of the trials.

Upon hearing Kylie Heyman’s voice, I had to put my jacket on, no kidding — I literally got chills. As Natalie, she filled the theatre with both her stunning vocals and her easy presence on stage. Furthermore, she brought the right combination of youth and skepticism required. Brendan Smith got to show off his impressive vocal range playing Gabe, and he also pulled off the wide-ranging facets of his character. He shone in every scene and song he was in, bringing light and exuberance wherever he went. Gabe’s big number was the lively “I’m Alive,” yet his other, softer song, “There’s a World,” just ruined me; it was the climax of the first act and it was completely heart breaking. The moment when Doctor Madden (Sean Doolittle ’16) reveals that Diana attempted suicide as Gabe leads Diana up the theatre stairs and into light was definitely one of the most powerful in the play.

Alec Nevin, who played Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry, was also a great casting decision. Henry, “a bit of a stoner” in his own words, was like a really eager, loveable puppy, and it was apparent that Nevin’s charm fit the bill. His persistence in looking out for Natalie was heartwarming, and the two of them (Nevin and Heyman) had excellent chemistry on stage. And last but not least is the only Cornellian actor, Daily Sun Arts and Entertainment section’s very own Sean Doolittle ’16 as Doctors Fine and Madden. While his role was mostly limited to speaking in a soothing and clinical voice, he got to do his fair share of singing. One of the funniest parts of the show, though, belonged to Doolittle: when Diana imagined her doctor as a “scary rock star,” he acted like one under pink and green lights, which quickly switched back to normal with his persona.

Wonderful cast aside, next to normal was an interesting and riveting show. Since I had never even heard of the play, the twists and turns hit me like a truck each time. Every scene, every note was captivating. What I found most impressive was the way next to normal gets to the very core of emotions that everyone (regardless of their particular familial or general life situation) experiences on the daily, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. The very first number, during which every member of the family sings about what hurts them as they go through their daily morning routine, set the tone for the whole musical. The rawness of next to normal is startling, comedic and frightening, but ultimately wraps up with an ending both bittersweet and uplifting. next to normal is a terrific play, and the cast and crew at Risley certainly did it justice.