Examining What Is Normal in Media Theatre’s ‘Next to Normal’

Ben Dibble as Dan with Krissy Fraelich as Diana in “Next To Normal” at The Media Theatre. Photo by Greg Carroccio

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

The Media Theatre continues their current season with a staging of a compelling and complex musical: Next to Normal, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and music by Tom Kitt. This Pulitzer Prize-winner runs to February 25th and is directed by Geoffrey Goldberg, with Ben Kapilow providing the musical direction. Philly favs Krissy Fraelich and Ben Dibble play the leads: Diana and Dan Goodman.

Next to Normal began as a 10-minute sketch about Electro-Shock Therapy in 1998. Entitled “Feeling Electric,” Kitt’s rock influenced short score and Yorkey’s incisive script were well received when presented at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. After many more workshops, the musical ran at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005. It opened on Broadway in April of 2009. In addition to the Pulitzer, Next to Normal won the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award, as well as three Tony Awards. The musical explores the life of what initially seems like a typical suburban family. Dad Dan is an architect; his wife Diana is a housewife, and they have a teen-aged son and daughter…everything seems perfect… Soon, however, the family struggle is revealed—Mom has been battling manic depression for sixteen years.

Goldberg’s production is amazing from top to bottom. The vocals are powerful and the acting is superlative. The entire cast leaves their souls on the stage. You laugh along with them, you cry and you ache as this family’s struggles unfold. Goldberg is to be commended for his deft touch in guiding his ensemble through the story—and not allowing it to get maudlin or preachy.

The actors inhabit their roles beautifully. Patrick Ludt handles the dual roles of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine with great versatility. Christian Infantino is daughter Natalie’s boyfriend Henry, bringing wonderful sensitivity to a high school slacker falling for a girl with so many challenges in her life. Molly Sorensen’s Natalie is grounded in such truth; for one so young, she totally captures her character’s angst. Another young performer to watch is Ronnie Keller, who plays Gabe—the couple’s son. We find out that he died as an infant, which triggered Diana’s illness. She sees him as an 18-year old in her delusions. Keller captivates, delivering a solid performance.

As husband and father Dan, Ben Dibble skillfully navigates his character’s ups and downs in handling his wife’s issues. He has been there for her throughout, but Dibble also gives us small glimpses of a man who is confused and troubled by his inability to make everything right—the way it used to be.

The anchor of the production is Krissy Fraelich’s gut-wrenching performance as Diane. Fraelich bares her soul taking the audience on Diana’s journey. She fearlessly shows us the full range of what being bi-polar can be. Pulling the audience skillfully into Diana’s world, Fraelich doesn’t apologize or equivocate in her commitment to the role.

The technical aspects are equally strong. Kyle Brylczyk’s multi-level set is simple, yet provides Goldberg with the ability to fluidly stage the production and keep the flow going. Steven Spera has provided a lighting design the places focus where needed, while Lexa Grace has given the cast great costumes that help define the family. Additional sound design was created by Carl Park, while Christine Gaydos executed the many props needed. Not to be overlooked for sure is Ben Kapilow. His musical direction powerfully moves the story forward. Ably assisting him is a talented orchestra: Nero Catalano (guitar), Set Rodriguez (violin/keyboard 2), Joshua Neale (bass), Richard Jones (cello), Kanako Omae Neale (drums).

I have to say, I don’t stand at the end of performances often—I strongly feel it has to be something that has truly transported me before I bestow what I consider to be the ultimate honor in the theatre. I stood at the end of Next to Normal.

Everyone handles this difficult subject with such heartfelt sensitivity; it will open many people’s eyes to the struggles of the mentally ill and their loved ones. Hopefully, it will also reduce the stigma and give folks the okay to seek treatment. There should be no judgement in admitting sometimes you just can’t cope. I highly recommend seeing this production.

If You Go: Performances run to February 25 at varying times. The Media Theatre is located at 104 E. State Street in Media, PA 19063. Tickets and additional info are available online at www.mediatheatre.org  Patrons can reach the box Office at 610-891-0100.