Review: Penn State Centre Stage’s ‘Normal’ an extraordinary production

“Normal” isn’t a word heard much these days, in a world where so many things from personal to global seem out of balance or in a less than desirable state.

Penn State Centre Stage’s latest production, “Next to Normal,” shines a bold light on the little details and big dreams of an average family to ask: What is normal, and is there really a normal life?

This Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) takes a frank, yet energetic, look at mental illness and how one family deals with it.

Director Cary Libkin has fired up a magical piece of theater. Libkin had never seen this play and seems to have relished the opportunity to create this production with complete freshness.

The musical power is inspiring. The cast of six take skillfully crafted songs and make them ring with emotion and conviction. Each character is endearing, real, human, someone you want to see survive and thrive.

The busy lives of a family of four – mom and dad, with teenage son and daughter – seem only too typical and familiar, until it becomes clear that the son is only a memory, and then one sees the bubbly, hyper-productive, enabler mother begin to lose her grip while making lunches.

“Normal” follows the path of each character as the mother seeks treatment from a psychiatrist, the father struggles to understand and wants all to be better, and the academic superachiever daughter tries to be open to romance with a lazy, pot-smoking boy who truly cares for her.

The son’s presence comes and goes, as he seems to reach out supportively, especially to his mother, from another place.

What’s striking is that no one is bad, everyone is likable, but no one is perfectly “how one should be,” reminding us that perhaps we are all in some way “next to” normal. There is a melding of starkness and nuance, defiance and tenderness, absolutes and shades of grey.

Led by conductor and keyboardist Beth Burrier, the music provided by a six-piece orchestra, thankfully only partially hidden from view, does more than competently back the characters’ many creative and harmonic duets, trios, quartets. Ranging from edgy rock to soft lilts, the orchestration also portrays in color and energy the broad range of the mind’s mental states.

Each cast member sings with great power, yet somehow through the lyrics one could almost forget that this is a musical.

Ariela Morgenstern is heartwarming as the doting, effervescent mother and wife. Asa Somers, who also starred in the original off-Broadway production and touring cast, impresses as the amiable but emotionally remote father and husband who tries to connect and keep things together.

The show’s three Penn State musical theater majors are, well, spellbinding. Christina Kidd is a powerhouse of confidence as Natalie, the daughter who seeks to find her way in life. Tommy Hart, as Henry, brings a counterbalance to Natalie, who embraces structure, even in her dedication as a pianist to classical music. The freedom of improvisation that Henry loves about playing jazz is foreign, even a bit destabilizing to Natalie.

The show’s surprise for this viewer is Gregory LaMontagne’s off-the-charts portrayal of the lost son, Gabe. When he sings “I’m Alive,” one can’t but feel that it’s true, as he tries to get through to his family and harmonizes with them.

Raymond Sage is masterful as the good Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, who do their best to provide guidance and medical assistance from within the medical system. One sees the effort as well as the limitations of medicine to offer a fix for a not so simple problem.

The scenic design (Lino Toyos), lighting (Ken Friedhoff), costumes (Jennifer Kane) and sound design (Curtis Craig) were masterful aspects of a first-rate stage experience.

Viewers should be aware that this production includes strong language.

“Next to Normal” gives one pause in more than one way. As we, as a society, struggle to understand and appropriately address the personal and community challenges posed by mental illness, we may also need to see that perhaps we are all, in some way, “next to normal,” and priceless.