On Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 12, I attended LHU’s biennial musical, “Next to Normal”, a production about a woman with manic depression and her family, who struggles to live a next to normal life alongside her. The score was heavy and full of emotion. The pit, while only having been present a week before, was in tune — although the drums were a bit too much and occasionally drowned out the actors’ speaking and singing. The cast was friendly and the lighting and backstage crews were flawless and on time.
The cast was comprised of 7 characters, but there was a total of 10 actors performing. Diana, the main female character, was played by Sara Billman, a senior with a major in education, and understudied by Samantha Patten, a freshman in social work. Diana’s husband and the main male character was played by Logan Wentzel, a freshman with an undecided major. Dan and Diana’s daughter, Natalie, was played by Brooke Reese, a theatre major senior, and understudied by Maya Wilborn, a sophomore in social work and Spanish. Gabe, Diana’s imaginary son, was played by Shaun Donohue, a sophomore in computer science, and Henry, the love interest for Natalie, was played by freshman Matthew Rex. The cast also included two features characters, Dr. Fine, who was played by Stuart Harsch, a senior majoring in theatre, and Dr. Madden, who was played by Mia Mormando, a social work senior, and understudied by Katie Fitzgerald, a sophomore biology major.
Here’s a little background to begin. Diana believes her son Gabe, who died as a baby, is still very much alive. No matter what Diana’s husband Dan and her daughter Natalie tell her, she still cannot “get rid of” Gabe. Her depressive state causes her to try to commit suicide, and although she is unsuccessful, her husband decides it would be in everyone’s best interest if she forgot Gabe, something that is possible through electric-shock therapy. After ECT, Diana does not remember Gabe, but she also does not remember marrying Dan or having a daughter.
In the main show, I was very impressed with Billman’s vocal ability, and was pleasantly surprised by her powerful stage presence. Her range is at a quality that fit Diana, and I enjoyed listening to her belt those difficult powerhouse solos. Her voice added to the character, and I’m sure made some in the audience feel emotionally drained after watching.
Natalie, played by Reese, also had a well-rounded voice and eye-catching acting abilities that commanded the attention of every audience member. I liked her vivacious character, and was practically sitting on the edge of my seat at every time she was on stage. I felt like her acting skills almost overpowered her singing abilities, so while her singing was neat and accurate, her acting is what drew me to her.
Wentzel, playing Dan, stole the show with his sudden talent. I think at the beginning of the school year, Wentzel may have been set aside because of his freshman status, but he had no problem shrugging off that negative opinion and stepping into the light, literally. He shocked nearly everyone in the audience the moment he started singing. People were swooning for his charismatic character and he looked completely comfortable with the other actors. His confidence was seriously contagious.
Logan Wentzel, who played Dan in the show, said, “I think that “Next to Normal” was an amazing experience and I was really happy with the fact that we were given the chance to perform a show that was so relatable and quite relevant to many peoples’ lives. So many people came up to me and thanked me for the performance as it was very real to them. It was such a difficult thing for me to act as Dan though as I’m just so used to playing the type of character that’s usually the sassy person that is always there for comedic relief. Dan was the complete opposite and although it was a heavy show I think I benefited greatly from being a part of it as I was challenged as a performer and learn so many life lessons from the characters and what they went through.”
On Saturday afternoon, I went to the understudy show, which was similar to the main show, but had some major key differences. Patten, who understudied as Diana, gave her input on what being an understudy is like in the theatre world. “Being an understudy is actually harder, because were not running it as much as them [the main cast]. It’s hard for me because I have to,
like, watch her [Billman] so I’m exactly where she is. I have to know the blocking more than she does so I can’t screw up and I have to get the timing right.”
I asked her about the idea that understudies seemed less important than the main cast, and she remained firm on her belief that they were equally important. “I definitely think it’s a huge myth, because even when the understudies aren’t on stage performing we’re doing stuff backstage. We’re constantly singing backgrounds and moving props and set pieces. If they [the main cast] get hurt or injured, we need to be ready to fill in at a moment’s notice.”
The understudy show is not advertised specifically, and Patten thought this made pressure for understudies even greater. “I have one shot and if I mess up I don’t have a chance to redeem myself. People are expecting it to be just as good as a regular show.”
People certainly were expecting it to be as good as a main cast show, myself included, and in some ways, the audience was disappointed. But although there is clearly a line between main cast and understudy, there were some understudy characters that caught my eye.
I admit, I was expecting the understudy production to be of slightly lower quality, and while some barely held up to the main cast’s standards, there were a couple that shone through the layer of judgement I had wrongly put up before preparing to watch the show – Katie Fitzgerald, playing Dr. Madden’s understudy and Maya Wilborn, playing Natalie’s understudy. Fitzgerald was extremely into character, and I liked her soprano voice. The key she sang in seemed too high at first, but she hit every note and fascinated the audience. Wilborn thoroughly matched Reese’s performance so much so that I almost felt confused as to why she was only an understudy. In opposition to Reese’s performance though, Wilborn’s singing seemed to outshine her acting, and while her acting was good, her singing blew me and every other person watching away.
The phrase “strengths and differences” was suggested, and I think that statement is exactly right.
Overall, the whole production was well done, and if you didn’t get a chance to see “Next to Normal”, you missed out. Congrats to the cast and crew for putting on a spectacular show. We can’t wait to see what LHU’s theatre program does in the future.