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Kathryn Hanson and Trevor Larson perform in the play “Next to Normal” on Friday at The Stage at Island Park. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Review: ‘Next to Normal’ musical powerful, worth seeing

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FARGO – Act Up Theatre only had a couple of weeks to rehearse before opening its production of “Next to Normal” on Wednesday.

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But audience members at Friday’s performance at The Stage at Island Park never saw a hint that this whole thing was pulled off on such a short schedule – the talented cast of six have already perfected this challenging, intense and ultimately rewarding musical.

“Next to Normal,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2008 and took home three Tony Awards in 2009, tells the story of Diana Goodman (Kathryn Hanson) and her struggle with bipolar disorder.

But the musical moves beyond stereotypical depictions of “crazy” behavior, instead looking at her search for the right mix of treatment options – and, just as importantly, how her illness affects her family.

Throughout the two acts, the audience sees Goodman, her husband Dan (Craig Ellingson), teenage daughter Natalie (Natalie Shea) and son Gabe (Trevor Larson) struggle for that ever-elusive “normal” that’s been more of a dream than a reality for several years.

The story touches on suicide, long-repressed loss, chemical dependency and the shortfalls of the modern mental health care system, and manages to tackle these tough topics with an insightful delicacy.

That’s not to say “Next to Normal” is a delicate story, and even in the first few songs the characters don’t shy away from vulgar language and brutal honesty.

But the musical’s most impressive ability is being able to balance these heavy, serious topics – topics that all too often are hidden away or loaded with stigma, even now – while still giving the crowd appropriate moments to laugh at a good joke or one-liner.

That’s not easy to pull off, and largely owes to the stellar cast’s timing and chemistry that proves the six are more than capable of making it all work while sending a loud-and-clear social justice message at the same time.

Shea, a West Fargo High School student, showed a talent beyond her years as the gifted, seemingly perfect teenager that just can’t get the love she craves from her ill mother and overtaxed father.

Her supportive boyfriend, Henry (Noah Johnson), embodies a sense of hope that’s never lost, even in the darkest moments of the story, and Johnson was a perfect fit as the lovable high school sweetheart.

Ellingson and Hanson deliver strong performances, showcasing the wide range of emotions – some changing in the blink of an eye – this couple goes through over two acts.

The Goodman’s son, Gabe, isn’t quite what he seems, and Larson’s strong voice and charismatic stage presence made that twist even more surprising and poignant.

Rounding out the cast is Justin Miles Barnum, who has double duty as two different doctors trying to find the right mix of medications, therapy and other treatment to help the Goodman family get back on track.

With more than 1 in 4 American adults suffering from a mental illness in any given year, the subject matter of “Next to Normal” is an unfortunately relatable thing for almost everyone today, whether they’ve personally dealt with the grip of such an illness or known someone who has.

And after a proper treatment by Act Up, the way we talk about mental illness just might get a little better in our community if we can learn some lessons from this intense, rewarding story.

IF YOU GO WHAT: Act Up Theatre’s production of “Next to Normal”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today, Monday and Tuesday

WHERE: The Stage at Island Park, 333 Fourth St. S., Fargo

INFO: Tickets are $20, with a discount for seniors and students; purchase tickets at The Stage at Island Park box office, call (701) 235-6778 or visit www.thestageatislandpark.org

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Ryan Johnson
After four years of covering news for the Grand Forks Herald and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Ryan Johnson has been a features reporter for The Forum's Variety section since 2013. His prior beats included politics, business, city government and higher education. Johnson is a 2008 alumnus of the University of North Dakota. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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