by Shawn Stalter
published November 7, 2018 on onstageblog.com
Casa Mañana’s exceptional performance of the emotionally evocative 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Next to Normal, plunges headlong into the turbulent waters of a modern suburban family battling the painful, life-altering effects of mental illness. Through an intimate, roller coaster exploration of the twists, turns, peaks and steep plunges of the mind, Next to Normal dives deep to unmask the face of those struggling with depression, isolation, anxiety, loneliness and more.
Casa Mañana’s all-star cast delivered a multi-dimensional and transcendental performance which immersed audience members in the deep-seated anguish and despair looming over this family. Through exceptional character depth, they facilitated an honest and long-overdue conversation about the internal struggles many among us face in the daily battle to attain a sense of “normalcy” and stability.
Christine Sherrill in her starring role as “Diana,” accompanied by her husband “Dan,” played by Charlie Pollock, unleashed fully-immersive and gripping performances. The powerful vocals and full-spectrum characterization of Luke Steinhauer as their son“Gabe”, English Bernhardt as daughter “Natalie” and Jakeim Hart as her friend “Henry” rounded out this production and allowed it to soar. Together, this cast took the audience on an emotionally-intensive journey transporting them to the heart of deep-seated pain associated with suppressing debilitating inner struggles.
Despite the somber and stormy subject matter in “Next to Normal”, the rains subside on several occasions to make way for some dark humor-infused pop and rock-styled musical numbers including “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” and “Doctor Rock”, “Didn’t I See This Movie?” and many more. Though laden with tongue in cheek humor, these songs rightfully poke an accusatory finger at an enfeebled American mental health care system more heavily aligned with drug manufacturers than the welfare of patients.
At the climax of the performance, a quick scan of the faces of those seated around me told the story of the real impact of this cast’s heart-wrenching performance. Each saw themselves, a family member or a cherished friend in some aspect of the momentous internal struggle which unfolded before our eyes. We each turned inward to face our own struggles with meeting the rigorous demands of life in the modern world, the agony and despair of loss, the crushing pressure to attain success and all of the other demons which claw at us in our most quiet hours.
The evening concluded with a well-deserved standing ovation for this truly stand out performance. Once the thunderous applause subsided, a tangible silence fell like a heavy cloak over the audience as we slowly worked our way toward the exits. We were together in our shared experience but alone in deep thought as we strode out into the damp evening.
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Photo credit Curtis Brown Photography