Actors, set design, and great music combine for an excellent production of Next to Normal 

Far from Normal

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Next to Normal depicts the struggles of the highly dysfunctional Goodman family, led by the mentally ill mother, Diana. After years of frustration with medications that cause a different set of issues rather than "fix" the ones at hand, Diana decides she's had enough and flushes her medicines down the toilet. The results are catastrophic, and the family is forced to consider the option of electric shock therapy.

Charleston Stage's version of this rock musical is fresh and engaging. The set by Charleston Calvert uses platforms to represent the different stories of the Goodman home. When the play moves outside of the Goodman's house, the different rooms represent different places around town such as Diana's doctor's office or her daughter Natalie's school. Calvert's created a mod, symmetrical, and aesthetically pleasing set, much less cluttered than the one in the Broadway production.

I've actually seen this play four times (including with the original cast), and I'll admit that my standards were a little high going in. My fear was that this production would mimic the original, as I had seen done elsewhere, but the actors, set, and music combine for a very successful production of this harrowing story.

One obstacle the actors face in this show is communicating internal conflicts outwardly, and the wonderful group of actors in this production gamely meet that challenge, bringing about a real sense of honesty and genuineness to the characters. Their approach is subtle, but with the help of exciting light cues and the powerful band, very effective.

The parents, played by Annie Freres and Sean Hayden, are phenomenal. Hayden's approach to Dan is subdued but conveys intense emotion; his performance in the final scenes brought me to tears. Freres is consistent the whole way through, bringing a less innocent portrayal to the crazed Diana. Her voice is rich and commanding.

The two children are on par as well. Celeste Riddle plays a sassy yet sympathetic Natalie Goodman, which balances Freres' performance. Some of the best moments are scenes in which they play off of each other. Both of them have great comedic timing as well, providing needed relief in this otherwise very emotional play.

In the Broadway production, the son, Gabe (Jacob Dickey), relies heavily on the set, utilizing poles and platforms to jump about in his big numbers. With Calvert's fresh design of the Goodman house, these platforms and poles are not present. I actually preferred this, because Dickey can not rely on the set as a crutch during his songs, forcing him to interact with his family members. His number "I'm Alive" is one of the show's best.

Next to Normal is an important play to see. Even if you think you don't like musicals, this one may change your mind. It's heart-wrenching and deals with one of life's biggest challenges: the subjectiveness of reality and the mystery's of the mentally ill mind, which cannot be fully manipulated or "cured."

I highly recommend going to see Charleston Stage's production of Next to Normal. They have done justice to this wonderful material. You may shed a few tears, but you'll also have a few laughs, and the experience will ultimately be very much worth it.

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