Powder & Wig takes on mental illness in Next to Normal

In an era when mental illness and the stigma surrounding it are extremely hot topics, especially on college campuses, it’s only that Powder and Wig brought these themes to the Colby campus. Next to Normal, a rock musical with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is the winner of three 2009 Tony Awards and a 2010 Pulitzer Prize. What starts out as an inside look into a typical, upper-middle-class American family soon turns into a show about a mother with bipolar disorder, her attempts to alleviate its effects on her family, and society’s views on mental health. In addition, we are introduced to the concept of psychotherapy and drug use as ways to treat mental illness.

webaeOn Friday, March 4, and Saturday, March 5, Powder and Wig presented their rendition of Next to Normal in Page Commons. Directed by Will Bonney ’16, Next to Normal was comprised of a small cast with only six students, led by Olivia Gould ’16 who played the mentally ill suburban mother Diana Goodman. Tommy Kienzle ’16 took on the role of Diana’s husband, Dan, and the two acted as parents to teenagers Natalie (played by Emily Goulette ’19) and Gabe (played by Josua Lutian ’18). In addition, we were introduced to Natalie’s love interest, Henry (played by Chris Collmus ’19), and Diana’s doctor (played by Will Gross ’18). We learn towards the beginning of the show that Gabe—whose name we don’t acquire until the end—is just Diana’s hallucination, and he in fact died as a baby 18 years ago. Natalie is quite aware that her mother suffers from mental illness and has not recovered from the loss of her brother, and thus has a distant and barely-cordial relationship with her parents. Dan attempts to keep the family as close to normal as possible, but it’s evident to all that there is no manner in which this dysfunctional family will—or can—ever be fixed.

With an intimate cast such as this one, it is crucial for the chemistry of the group to feel organic to and relatable for the audience. Thanks to Bonney’s intelligent and heartfelt directing, this goal was more than accomplished and Bonney’s hard work showed during this two-hour performance. Moreover, singing the right notes is an important part of a musical (thanks to music director Beth Vix ’19, the harmonies were stunning), but Bonney took it to the next level by pushing the actors past just singing to achieve emotionally charged chemistry and acting.

Newcomers Goulette and Collmus blew the audience away with their performances, as well as their chemistry as a realistic high school couple. Goulette’s portrayal of a suffering, intelligent, confused Natalie was a wonderful entrance into the theater world at Colby. In addition, her voice was extremely impressive, as her character’s songs are both challenging and very emotionally charged. Goulette’s ability to convey her pain through song was both heart wrenchingly and breathtakingly beautiful.

Collmus was an incredible asset to the show as well, bringing a beautiful tenor sound to the cast. In addition, Collmus’ acting chops were nothing short of great, as his rendition of starry-eyed stoner high schooler Henry was both believable and lovable. Collmus’ stage presence was both strong and vulnerable, which added a wonderful dynamic to the cast and show as a whole.

Gross had an interesting part to play in this show, as he wasn’t a member of the family (neither was Collmus, but he had a closer relationship to the Goodman clan). However, we didn’t mind, as Gross’ interpretation of the psychopharmacologist/scary rock star/caring doctor was alarming, hilarious, and authentic. Gross added some much-needed comedic timing to an otherwise intense and dark show, and his acting skills were appreciated in those moments. Gross had a difficult part to play in this show as well, as he had to play both Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, two different doctors with two different personalities; however, Gross did a standup job of differentiating between them.

Lutian’s role as Gabe was perhaps the most intriguing in this show. Most of Diana’s mental illness stems from her inability to cope with the loss of her son, meaning that we see Lutian almost every time Diana is onstage due to her consistent hallucinations. Gabe is an extremely dynamic character and takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster; for one, we are of course saddened by the fact that Gabe died as a baby. However, we also resent him for continuing to drag Diana back into her mental illness, as whenever she tries to recover, she succumbs to her love for Gabe instead. Lutian portrayed these varying dynamics flawlessly, and his incredible singing talent just added to the overall angelic yet demonized qualities of this character. “Even though there were only six people in the cast, this show couldn’t been half as good as it was without everyone helping out,” Lutian said, “I knew coming in that this project would eat up all my Jan Plan and early spring semester, but I came to all rehearsals always excited. Everyone had energy that really just lifted us up. The fact that everyone cared so much made the process of creating this piece easier.”

Lastly, we have the married couple that was the core of this piece, Kienzle (Dan) and Gould (Diana). It’s impossible to describe or imagine how difficult these parts must have been to play, as they are both extremely dark, complicated, intricate characters with infinite depth to them. However, Kienzle and Gould were commendable in portraying these characters in organic, tragic, and touching ways that left most of the audience in tears.

Kienzle took on the role of a stressed, selfish, yet loyal and loving father bravely and in a manner that was both emotionally crippling and extremely raw. Kienzle’s vocals were a high point during this show, as we truly felt each and every emotion that his character was feeling with each passing note. Next to Normal was not easy to produce, and, like any show, the process had its fair share of problems. That being said, I have never worked with a cast like this one. The six of us became incredibly close throughout two months of almost uninterrupted rehearsal and the end result was a chemistry unlike that of any other show I’ve been a part of. It was intense, but ultimately very satisfying,” Kienzle said.

Gould, the protagonist of the show, also deserves high praise for her depiction of Diana. Playing a woman with bipolar disorder is no small feat, and Gould did it with courage, grace, and significant talent. Diana is perhaps the most intricate character in the show, as she has many layers to her that may resurface at any given time. Haunted by her past but trying to embrace her present, Diana attempts to be a sharp suburban mother who has it all, but can never quite get there. Gould achieved this dynamic stunningly and used her stellar vocal abilities to bring us into Diana’s world and truly feel all that Diana was feeling. As the lead of Next to Normal, Gould set the bar high with a fluidity and intensity that was quickly met by the rest of the cast.

Although Next to Normal is not the typical “feel good, happy ending” musical that we’ve come to know and love, this show is something else entirely that I personally believe is more important: a “feel-everything musical” (New York Times). Next to Normal is truly an experience in which one will laugh, cringe, cry, and feel almost every emotion on the spectrum within two hours, and Powder and Wig’s rendition did not fall short.

Stay tuned for more announcements about Powder and Wig’s spring shows, Baltimore Waltz and the One Acts.

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