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Theater review: UVU's 'Next to Normal' is exhilarating, grounded in reality

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 13 2013 4:10 p.m. MST

“Next to Normal,” UVU’s Noorda Regional Theatre Center, through Nov. 23, $10-$12, uvu.edu/arts or 801-863-7529

OREM — “Next to Normal” hurts so good.

The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner is one of the more perfect selections for a college production, channeling the angst of students on the brink of the full responsibilities of adulthood. In addition, Utah, as the state with the highest rate of depression, a fact displayed in the Noorda Theatre lobby, is a prime location for this musical.

The Utah Valley University School of the Arts staging of the challenging "Next to Normal" is the theater department’s finest musical production to date.

Under the direction of Dave Tinney, the actors bring remarkable clarity to the complex, multilayered characters exploring how a family copes with crisis and the trial-and-error process of finding the right medicinal combination to treat a mélange of manic depression and post-partum trauma. It’s also an honest, truthful story about a family with a whole lot of love for each other.

As the afflicted housewife Diana Goodman, Jacquelyne Jones is a formidable presence, commanding this stage as confidently as she has on other venues along the Wasatch Front. She takes the audience from the brightest hope to the deepest despair and then back again. It’s a searing portrayal as her character’s pain and strength are equally evident. Jones is blessed with vocal talent to sing magnificently, with an effortless quality perfectly suiting the tone and pace of the conversational moments of the piece.

Diana’s illness leaves husband Dan (Benjamin J. Henderson) feeling lost and helpless and daughter Natalie (Zoé Wilde) feeling overwhelmed and overshadowed by her brother Gabe (Topher Rasmussen). The realness of Jones’ acting is matched by Henderson, Wilde and Rasmussen, who express indisputable vulnerability. Rasmussen is particularly electrifying in the ironically titled “I’m Alive,” and Henderson’s strongest moment is the reprise of “I Am the One” near the musical’s end.

Andrew Robertson plays his role strikingly well. He plays Henry, the classmate who breaks through Natalie’s emotional walls, as a charming “perfect for you” boyfriend, rather than a brooding, moody slacker — a bold intent that pays off handsomely.

Transforming from a reserved doctor to a scary rock singer at the drop of a clipboard, Jacob Theo Squire impressively navigates the dual role of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, characters who might be merely stereotypes in less-capable hands.

Overall the score is beautifully sung with musical direction by Rob Moffat, who draws out the cast's best voices. He also leads the terrific-sounding six-piece band.

There’s a theater first, at least for this writer. At intermission, either by request or an individual choice, an usher passed around a box of Kleenex to audience members, until the box was emptied. The tissues were needed.

While all the emotional rhythms are intact, Tinney has toned down the rawness of “Next to Normal,” directing the actors to be composed yet still realistic and with less mania-fueled rage. It appears a conscious decision, perhaps to make the characters grounded and easily relatable, more similar to the community’s next-door neighbors.

Purists may argue the softening has declawed the authors’ intent for a ravaging, visceral experience, but it becomes apparent the choice is wise. Audience members at the performance attended for this review were unsure how to respond during Act 1’s first half, particularly the biting, dark humor. “Is this a comic portion where it would be OK to laugh?” they seem to initially ask. Ultimately, the audience is receptive and appreciative.

The intensified realism of the acting is at odds, however, with the figurative, scaffolding-built set.

A brilliant piece of unconventional work, “Next to Normal” is arguably theater’s first musical tragedy. It’s a rewarding story of a family bravely coming to terms with the past and bravely facing its future. UVU’s production is exhilarating.

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