‘Next To Normal’ at Rockville Musical Theatre at The Gaithersburg Arts Barn

I am a Next to Normal fan and have been since I saw it Off-Broadway and then at Arena Stage, and then several times on Broadway, and I have seen several local productions at universities and in community theatres. I was thrilled when the score (Music by Tom Kitt and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey) nabbed the Tony Award for Best Score. I had almost obliterated my cast CD starring Tony winner Alice Ripley, because I listened to it so many times. It’s simply one of the best scores ever written for the stage.

Diana (Marni Ratner Whelan) and Dan (Chad Wheeler). Photo by Elli Swink.
Diana (Marni Ratner Whelan) and Dan (Chad Wheeler). Photo by Elli Swink.

By now most of you know that this is a courageous musical about how a family copes and doesn’t cope with their wife/mother’s battle with manic depression. It’s powerful, and sad, and frustrating, and funny-a roller coaster of emotions. I am not going to go through the plot because I don’t want to give away the ending, so if you want to peak at the synopsis take a look here.

So here is why I really liked what Director Rachelle A. (Shelly Horn) did with this very powerful production of Rockville Musical Theatre’s Next to Normal. First this family is in your face in the very intimate Arts Barn performance space. There is no escape. You are forced, like this family, to face mental illness with all its ups and downs, and this wonderfully talented cast delivers that message loud and clear and with much heart.

Marni Ratner Whalen is a pistol as Diana and she has energy and pipes to spare. She presents a multi-layered performance  and is a fine actress as well as a well-trained singer, especially seen in her renditions of “I Miss the Mountains” and “You Don’t Know.” And what I liked the most was that she is not screaming when performing her powerful songs, which makes Diana’s inner turmoil and pain so real and heart-wrenching.

Chad Wheeler’s vocals were also heartfelt and beautiful and haunting, especially in “He’s Not Here” and ‘A Light in the Dark” with Ratner Whalen. It’s a tough role to perform because Dan is suffering all the time-most of the time quietly and internally-yet always supportive of his wife and always hoping for her recovery. Wheeler does manage to bring some warmth to his role especially when he encourages his wife to try a new treatment to help ease her depression, but also shows the frustration and sadness he feels watching his wife battle this debilitating disease.

Rob Milanic plays son Gabe and he puts a lot of emotion into his performance of Gabe’s anthem “I’m Alive” and its reprise. However, a little more practice on harmonizing with his fellow cast members would have made the vocals on “I am the One” with Wheeler and “I Dreamed a Dance” with Ratner Whalen even more wonderful. Milanic is a fine actor and captured the frustration he felt as his mother underwent her new therapy, as he, not Natalie, was becoming the ‘forgotten child.’

I loved Tim Kurtzberg’s performance as the two doctors-Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden. He was funny and caring and displayed great vocals with Ratner Whalen as the rockstar Dr. Fine in “Didn’t I See this Movie” and as the compassionate and frustrated Dr. Madden in “Seconds and Years” and the Reprise of ‘You Don’t Know.”

My personal  favorites were the young stoner Henry, played sweetly by Dylan Echter, and his messed-up girlfriend-the very strong Natalie, played by the powerhouse Rachel Barlaam. Their harmonies in “Perfect for You” and “Hey (all 3 of them) were gorgeous and I believed from the moment they met in a piano rehearsal room at school that they belonged together.

Rachel Baarlam (Natalie) and (Henry). Photo by ELli Swink.
Rachel Barlaam (Natalie) and Dylan Echter (Henry). Photo by Elli Swink.

But when Barlaam let go it was volcanic. In “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” sung with Milanic and Ratner Whalen, the vocals were spine-tingling and the pain and frustration was real. Her harmonies with Wheeler and Ratner Whalen in “Song of Forgetting” was my favorite performance of the night. This Natalie was a force to be reckoned with and Barlaam’s performance was a tour de force!

And kudos to Director Rachelle A. (Shelley) Horn for not making these fine actors portray their characters as cartoon characters  – which I have seen in so many other productions of this show.

I cannot say enough kind words about the wonderful orchestra, conducted by Musical Director Arielle Bayer, (who also played keyboards) who played the score so beautifully and never once in this small venue drowned out one single lyric. That’s amazing! So a special nod to Audrey Chang and Cindy Stock on violin; Laura Walling on bass;Alex Vallejo on guitar; and Kevin Uleck on drums. You rocked!

And some hardcore fans of the show many not like that the orchestra is not blasting the score through the roof-but I welcome it.

This is the clearest sound I have ever heard at a musical in the Arts Barn and Sound Operator Neil Andruski, who also provided the smooth lighting changes between scenes, deserves a hand! And, of course, kudos to the excellent sound design by Vitol Wiacek and Rick Swink’s excellent lighting design.

And as if directing this difficult show wasn’t enough, Director Horn is credited for the set design. Again, she kept it simple and effective, with chairs, tables and two platforms with steps where a lot of the action took place. Costume Designer Terri Allred, and Properties Designers Cathy Kieserman and Sonya Tavitian kept it simple too, allowing the main focus to be on the story and music and lyrics, and performances.

The cast of Rockville Musical Theatre’s ‘Next To Normal': (left to right): Dylan Echter (Henry), Rachel Barlaam (Natalie), Rob Milanich (Gabe), Marni Whelan Ratner (Diana), and Chad Wheeler (Dan). Photo by Elli Swink.
The cast of Rockville Musical Theatre’s ‘Next To Normal’: (left to right): Dylan Echter (Henry), Rachel Barlaam (Natalie), Rob Milanich (Gabe), Marni Whelan Ratner (Diana), and Chad Wheeler (Dan). Photo by Elli Swink.

Rockville Musical Theatre’s Next to Normal is simply one of the finest productions of Next to Normal I have seen. If you are a fan of the show you will be reminded why you fell in love with it the first time. If you have never seen the show before – buy your tickets now. You will be moved by this powerful theatrical experience. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: Two hours, plus one intermission.

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Next to Normal plays from April 26, 2015 at Rockville Musical Theatre performing at The Gaithersburg Arts Barn – 311 Kent Square Road, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. For tickets, call (301) 258-6394, or purchase them online.

Rockville Musical Theatre’s ‘Next to Normal’ Opens Tomorrow Night at The Gaithersburg Arts Barn by Director Shelly Horn.


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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.


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