Theater / Film

Review: Zoetic Stage’s ‘Next to Normal’ is an emotional, personal don’t-miss musical

Written By Christine Dolen
March 20, 2023 at 2:13 PM

Jeni Hacker as Diana and Ben Sandomir as Dan in Zoetic Stage’s production of the musical “Next to Normal” at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami, through Sunday, April 9.

The complex interactions within dysfunctional families have fueled great dramas since ancient times.  Hundreds of works by theater history’s finest playwrights come to mind, but Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s “Next to Normal” is an extraordinary one.

So is Zoetic Stage’s new production of the rock-pop musical, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010, the year Zoetic was launched.  Since it began performing in its Carnival Studio Theater home at Miami’s Arsht Center, Zoetic has staged 37 shows – world premieres, plays, musicals, solo shows, revues – in that time, winning critical acclaim, a loyal following and dozens of Carbonell Awards.

Jeni Hacker as Diana comforts Nate Promkul as Gabe while Robert Koutras as Dr. Fine listens in Zoetic Stage’s “Next to Normal.” (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

But this 38th show?  “Next to Normal” is simply superb, every element combining to deliver a powerhouse artistic and emotional experience, one that manages to be both heartbreaking and exhilarating.

Kitt and Yorkey’s six-actor musical about a wife and mother’s long, deepening struggle with bipolar disorder has had several fine major productions in South Florida – by Actors’ Playhouse in 2012, Slow Burn Theatre in 2013, Measure for Measure/Infinite Abyss in 2018.  But whether you have or haven’t experienced the show before, Zoetic’s “Next to Normal” becomes must-see theater for many reasons.

Artistic director Stuart Meltzer, whose program notes refer to his late mother’s battle with bipolar disorder, brings a depth of understanding to staging the piece. Because of his personal history, he deliberately hadn’t seen a production nor listened to the original cast recording before starting to work on it for Zoetic.

Meltzer’s version is immersively intimate. Theatergoers seated in first row must feel enveloped in the family’s conflicts and in those rarer moments when memories or feelings conveyed in song become the catalysts for joy, wistfulness, and hope.  The up-close staging choice gives the audience the feeling of living each moment in tandem with the actors.

Diana (Jeni Hacker) listens as Dan (Ben Sandomir) tries to reason with her while their son Gabe (Nate Promkul) pushes back in Zoetic Stage’s “Next to Normal.” (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Accompanied expressively by music director Caryl Fantel and five other musicians, the six performers are stunning in every configuration – solos, duets, small groups, the entire cast.  Indeed, when they’re all singing together, it’s mind-boggling that just a half-dozen actors are creating such a glorious sound.

Five-time Carbonell winner Jeni Hacker plays Diana Goodman, the woman whose bipolar disorder surfaced after a sudden, terrible loss nearly 18 years earlier.  Though a twist partway through the first act reveals Diana’s major delusion, audiences deserve to experience that surprise firsthand, so we won’t spoil it here.

As Diana, Hacker’s face is often etched with anguish or confusion, though her mood changes are quicksilver and always appropriate to the moment. She is, unequivocally, among the most expressive singer-actors in the region, a truth highlighted as she sings “I Miss the Mountains,” “I Dreamed a Dance,” “Didn’t I See this Movie?” and more. Her Diana is another triumph in a career that has included such challenging roles as Fosca in “Passion,”  Mrs. Lovett in  “Sweeney Todd” and Helen in “Fun Home.”

Ben Sandomir plays Diana’s patient, loyal and supportive husband Dan, a man as long-suffering as his wife. Alternating between frustration (“He’s Not Here”) and hope (“A Light in the Dark”), Sandomir finds the tamped-down exasperation and longing in his character.

Two teens full of angst, insecurity and/or rage also inhabit the Goodmans’ home.

Gabe (Nate Promkul), just turning 18, chafes at his mother’s over-protective way of parenting and repays her most often with surliness.  Promkul, who was so memorable as Anthony Hope in Zoetic’s “Sweeney Todd,” has a powerful voice perfectly suited to this show’s score.  In “Next to Normal,” his defiant “I’m Alive” and disturbingly persuasive “There’s a World” illustrate the great range of his talent.

Gabe’s 16-year-old sister Natalie (Gabi Gonzalez) is an academic perfectionist and  pianist. Her punishing work ethic is designed to get her forever-distracted mother to notice her.  She rages as she sings of the sibling status quo in “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” then segues into a kind of partying-and-pills rebellion after she acquires a supportive boyfriend named Henry (Joseph Morell).  Both actors have beautiful voices, and their scenes together have the friction of conflict as well as the sweetness of budding romance.

Robert Koutras as Dr. Fine goes overboard trying to cure Jeni Hacker’s Diana with pills in Zoetic Stage’s “Next to Normal” now in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Robert Koutras plays a pair of therapists, adding his strong voice to the mix.  Dr. Fine (about whom Diana sings the lilting “My Psychopharmacologist and I”) juggles different medications and doses until finally Diana tells him, “I don’t feel like myself. I mean, I don’t feel anything.” He replies, chillingly, “Hm. Patient stable.”

After an impulsive decision to flush her meds down the toilet, Diana regresses, then goes to see a new therapist Dr. Madden (Koutras).  He has been described as a “rock star” shrink, and the delusional Diana has flashes of seeing him that way, as he awkwardly rips open his staid white coat to reveal leather and chains. It’s funny for a minute. But soon, frustrated by Diana’s lack of progress, Dr. Madden recommends electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – and erases a great chunk of her memory.

Operating on the same high creative wavelength as Meltzer and the cast, the “Next to Normal” design team has outdone itself, artfully enhancing the show’s intimacy.

As you take your seat, you see a high-backed gray armchair resting on a black floor with jagged white lines, like the cracks from an earthquake. Black velvet drapes conceal part of the playing area, but they’re quickly pulled open to reveal the Goodman family’s house – which is upside down. David Goldstein’s first set design for Zoetic is genius, a visual metaphor for the state of a family in torment.

Preston Bircher’s sensitive lighting design reflects the characters’ roller-coaster emotions, and when he bathes the house in a colorfully dappled, almost psychedelic design, it reflects Diana’s delusional mental state.

David Goldstein’s set design for Zoetic Stage’s “Next to Normal” positions the family’s house upside down, which is a visual metaphor for their lives. (Photo by Justin Namon)

Matt Corey’s sound design is perfection in this production.  The words, the music, the effects are crystal clear, and you may find yourself marveling at the intricacies of Yorkey’s book and lyrics.

Costume designer Marina Pareja dresses the petite Hacker mostly in blouses or long sweaters and tank tops with jeans, the suburban mom’s uniform. Sandomir’s Dan is an architect whose look is comfortable but professional.  The kids’ high school attire is convincingly age-appropriate.  Koutras’s sleek docs look like men full of confidence – or themselves.

In the world of musical theater, there are all kinds of shows. Some, as creative and visually dazzling as they may be, offer nothing more profound than entertainment and escape, exactly what their audiences want.  “Next to Normal” takes you on a far deeper journey, one that is observant, sometimes painfully truthful, ultimately moving in a way that leaves you thinking and feeling long after you’ve gone home.

And in the case of Zoetic’s production, you can add “thrilling” as a description.  This is South Florida theater at its best.

WHAT: “Next to Normal” by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt

WHERE: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN:  7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (no evening show Wednesday, April 5, additional matinee Saturday, April 8), through Sunday, April 9

COST:  $60 and $65

INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

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