Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production of Next To Normal is nothing short of amazing. The musical explores the aspects of mental illness via the Goodman family: who is affected and how, the attempts to get help, and the trials and tribulations met along the way. It has won the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards and is quite the powerful piece of theater.
BCT has found an all-star cast to take direction from Joel Sass, each with his or her own distinct voice. Karen Weber plays mom Diana who lives with mental illness and I get a Valerie Harper vibe from her. She commands the stage, and her range extends flawlessly from extreme strength to extreme vulnerability. Sean Dooley plays Diana’s husband, Dan, and he makes it easy to sympathize with the character who struggles with figuring out how he can help Diana. I felt as much compassion for him in the the end as I did Diana which I didn’t expect. With a voice bordering on operatic, Dominique Wooten has been cast as the doctor figure, and the writers have even done well with showing snippets of his side of things throughout Diana’s battle.
Last but not least are the son and daughter: Aly O’Keefe as Natalie and Blake Rhiner as Gabe. O’Keefe’s voice is so sweet and well-complemented by Erin Patrick Miller who plays her boyfriend, Henry. They both do a wonderful job portraying how 16-year-olds might cope with tumultuous times, including drug experimentation. I saw Rhiner as Roger in Lyric Arts’ RENT and was an instant fan, so it was a pleasure to see him perform again. His voice is pure and you can tell he belongs on the stage. Gabe’s role swings from sinister to naive and Rhiner takes on this challenge very well.
Yes, the topic of mental illness is intense, but Next To Normal pulls off this unique rock musical with enough realism and optimism that you shouldn’t be afraid to go. Should you still bring Kleenex? Heck yes. See it at the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center now through November 15th. Tickets range from $27-$34; also check Goldstar for discount tickets.