Sponsored by Baptist Health System Psychiatry and Brookwood Medical Center, NEXT TO NORMAL is an exploration of grief and how it can pull you down into the depths of depression. Certainly not what you think of when you go to see a musical at Red Mountain Theatre, it is a timely and real look at mental illness. Although definitely full of adult themes and language, this play broke new ground when it opened off Broadway in 2008. It moved to Broadway the next year and continued to break barriers as well as winning three Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize.
Red Mountain’s production is also breaking barriers with its minimal, yet practical set and outstanding cast. My companions and I came away saying that although there were a couple of tiny opening night glitches, overall the play is flawless.
It is hard to know where to start in giving accolades to this talented cast and crew.
Davis Haines is given the opportunity to not only share his vocal gifts, but also his considerable acting abilities. In the pivotal role of the son, who takes other characters to the edge of their sanity and beyond, he is very charming and influential.
Also notable is high school junior Abigail Barlow who plays Natalie, the long suffering and usually forgotten sister. She is a perfect match vocally to her brother and the other cast members who include Chan Harris as Dan, her father and Robert “Bee” Hall who portrays Henry, her boyfriend. (Bee Hall won two BroadwayWorld awards in 2015 and is off to a great start in 2016.)
Christopher Sams plays two different doctors and is definitely up to the task. His strong voice and turn on a dime characterizations are impressive.
But most of my praise must go to Kristi Tingle Higginbotham. As Diana, the mother of this dysfunctional family, Ms. Higginbotham is called upon to go from what you think is a bright and cheery mom at the very beginning to a woman with bipolar disorder whose grip on reality is slipping away.
Singing every type of music imaginable and almost continuously on stage, Ms. Higginbotham shows her range and stamina. With so much emotion on stage, Kristi does a phenomenal job of holding back her pain until a scene when she is packing up her son’s things. It is then that you feel all of her pain in a very real and at times uncomfortable way. This scene is also when Haines is able to really show his power of persuasion and the two make for a true force of feelings and conflict.
NEXT TO NORMAL is at times tough to watch, but it is certainly worth it. Having seen the original cast on Broadway, I was not prepared for this production to measure up in any way, and yet it did. In comparison to a large Broadway theatre, the closeness of the stage at Red Mountain Cabaret Theatre adds to the emotional performances and made it even more powerful for me.
With scenic design and sound design by BWW award winners Stephen Fister and Jay Tumminello, as well as music direction by Katie Holmes, Red Mountain has assembled a fine team that shows off their work in this production.
Well directed and expertly staged by director David Callaghan, this moving and timely experience is one you need to see.
NEXT TO NORMAL will run a very limited engagement at the Red Mountain Cabaret Theatre from Thursday, February 18 through Sunday, February 21 with showings at 7:30 each night and 2 pm matinees both Saturday and Sunday. Call 205-324-2424 or got to www.redmountaintheatre.org for ticket information.Marietta Lunceford/Broadwayworld