REVIEW - Looking for Light in the Darkness in “Next to Normal”


Destination Duluth Arts & Entertainment Review of Duluth Playhouse's "Next to Normal."

Photographer Steve Mattson's Facebook post states, "The level of talent on stage and in the pit is extraordinary. What a gift, having the ability to stroll into the Norshor on a gloomy Saturday afternoon for a couple of hours and then walk out moved, glassy-eyed, and thankful for the Arts our community provides and supports. Well done, All!"

Chronic mental illness has touched almost every family, and sadly is becoming even more prevalent today. It is hard to fathom the heartache, devastation, and pain felt by the husbands, wives, and most particularly the children, as they helplessly watch their loved ones spiral down into an abyss of darkness.

Director Wes Drummond tackles these issues head on with the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, and the 2009 winner of three Tony awards, “Next to Normal.” This is not your light-hearted, “feel-good” musical, but it is dazzling in its brutal honesty and in its raw emotion, driving its messages home with a magnificent cast of six actors and a fabulous orchestra.

On the surface and from the outside, the play’s Goodman family seems “normal,” with the loving parents, Diana and Dan, their teenaged son Gabe and daughter Natalie.

But as one lyric says about the Goodman house, “Everything is perfect and nothing is real.” After an early tragic incident, Diana has withdrawn for nearly twenty years into the depths of bipolar disorder, and no amount of psychotropic drugs or even ultimately electroconvulsive therapy, have been able to help her.

Jen Burleigh-Bentz breaks the audience’s hearts as the bruised and broken Diana, wanting so desperately to be the wife and mother her family needs, and trying unsuccessfully every day just to “hold it all together”.

Jen Burleigh-Bentz plays Diana, in the lead role of Next to Normal at the Duluth Playhouse. Photo by Terry Cartie Norton

In her most anguished song “You Don’t Know,” the audience is able to fully sense the searing pain Diana’s illness has caused her when she vocalizes, “Do you know, do you know what it's like to die alive?” In every song, Burleigh-Bentz bares the very depths of Diana’s tattered soul using her masterful soprano voice to its full advantage.

Thomas Bevan delivers a nuanced performance as the ever-patient and devoted husband and caretaker Dan, who is only surviving by “Living on a latte and a prayer.” Bevan has a powerful voice that can, in turns, show both his fear about what he can’t control and his quiet despair as Diana’s manic-depressive episodes destroy all their lives.

Bevan shows how Dan is truly a “good man” constantly trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives who is pushed to the edge mentally and emotionally himself.

Bevan’s clearest statement in song about his life and his view of himself, is in “I Am The One.” He tries to make Diana see that he is the one who knows her, the one who cares, the one who has always been there, which sends her into a combative argument, leading them on a path to nowhere, especially when Gabe jumps into the vocal argument.

Natalie, played brilliantly by Daylen Moore, is a lost soul who has never felt much of any affection or even acknowledgment from her mother. In “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl,” Moore seizes the moment to reveal the essence of her character to the audience, using their amazing Broadway belt voice to tell their story.

Moore’s songs in Act II. get even more impressive as they ride the roller coaster of emotions, wanting to be angry at everyone and have someone show her love at the same time. Moore breaks the audience’s hearts with their lament, “I don’t need a life that’s normal/That’s way too far away/But something next to normal/Would be okay.”

On the periphery of the staging and at the story’s heart, all at the same time, is the son Gabe. Jake S. Nelson shows the intensity of his character’s rebelliousness, petulance, and even anger, as he fights for his mother’s exclusive attention. Nelson’s best vocals were in his anthem “I’m Alive” where the rock score is particularly suited for his voice.

Playing both of Diana’s doctors, the aptly named Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, Antony Ferguson has some of the show’s few comic moments, and convincingly presents how, though well-meaning, the medical establishment is at a loss of how to “cure” Diana. Ferguson’s playing a rock star in one of Diana’s fantasies demonstrated both his comic chops and his strong voice.

SJ Olson plays the only character from the “real” world who comes into the Goodman home as Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry. Olson humorously plays the “stoner” kid and the sweetness of a sympathetic shoulder for Natalie to cry on, as her world falls even more apart. Vocally, Olson had a few early issues with their lower register, but they got stronger as the play progressed, especially with “Perfect for You.”

Music Director Beth Brophy brought together a tight six-piece band, with musicians at the top of their game playing a difficult score. Bravo to musicians Kyle Picha, Emily Ramsey, Toko Nakajima, Gregg Curleo, Cory Clay, and Kurt Savela.

All the shows technical aspects were firing on all cylinders too, including designers Nick Gosen (Sound), Curtis Phillps (set) and Jeff Brown (lighting), all doing some of their best work.

Sleek and sophisticated with angles, two-levels, and wrought iron railings, Phillips’ set for “Next to Normal” is appropriate for the home of an architect, Dan’s occupation in the play.

Curtis Phillips is the Scenic Designer of Next to Normal. Lighting Designer: Jeff Brown, Sound Designer: Nick Gosen, Costume Designer: Caitlin Quinn, Prop Designer: Carrie Powers Greer. Photo by Terry Cartie Norton

In a play where light is a strong symbol and is also integral to the show’s themes and motifs, Brown’s lighting design is exciting and dynamic, with hundreds of light cues, all emblematic of the music, lyrics, mood, characters, and the intensity of the story.

The lighting design by Jeff Brown is integral, exciting and dynamic. Photo by Terry Cartie Norton.

Kudos to Wes Drummond for choosing and bringing to life a show that is challenging for the actors, the production team, the orchestra, and ultimately also for the audience. While it may not be known to many audience members, it is as deserving to be seen as “The Sound of Music” and “Young Frankenstein,” or any other musical this season.

After the cast finishes the final song, “Light,” the audience is left mostly silent and emotionally drained. The show leaves everyone with more questions than answers and, undoubtedly, was the impetus for after-show discussion about where the Goodman family could possibly go from here.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope for this tortured family, as the lyrics of the final song “Light” assert, “We'll find the will to find our way/ Knowing that the darkest skies will someday see the sun.”

 Note: This production is intended for mature audiences and contains profanity, depictions of mental illness, drug use, and self-harm.

Information for “Next to Normal”

Music by Tom Kitt and Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Running March 15-31
Saturday matinee on March 16 @2 pm
Sunday matinees on March 24 & 31 at 2 pm
Audio description March 16 @ 2 pm
ASL interpretation on March 29 @ 7:30 pm
For tickets, call 218.733.7555. or visit the Playhouse site @

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