Geoffrey Barnes & Jess Harris Stiller. Photo: CAMT

Next to Normal

Directed by Sarah Thomas
Musical Directors Wesley Thomas and Kelly Hoffmann

A review by Jennifer Starr

Entire contents are copyright © by Jennifer Starr. All rights reserved.

“How as your escape to the theatre?” my husband asked upon my return home last evening. I had to think, was it an escape? From what was I escaping?

Next to Normal is an experience in Coping with Crises and Mental Illness (with music). It is a musical that feels closer to a straight play for me because it is atypical in that it is not a fantasy (for me). That could be me or my family up there! Real Life smacks you in the face from the stage and hints at traumas in your own past. How do I escape from my own family, my past, my coping? The answer is I don’t.

I was very pleased and well entertained with the production by Cardinals for the Appreciation of Musical Theatre (CAMT) in last night’s performance of this material. This is a heavy musical with beautiful songs and a catharsis waiting to happen for the audience. Bring some tissues along. The plot deals with a family whose mother struggles with Bi-Polar disorder. The synopsis is in the program (or on-line if you’d like spoilers) so I will not revisit it here.

The production included a well-balanced voice to recorded track ratio that allowed my ears to experience heavenly moments. Though some of the Rock N Roll grit was missing from the PA system of bass dominated visceral vibrations, I did not mind because the subtleness and blend let those voices soar. It was a nice choice really. Oh, and such wonderful singing by the cast. Each performer was spot on in character and singing voice.

Jess Harris Stiller delivers a powerful performance as Diana, who deals with mental illness, delusions, and treatment all while doing her best to raise a family. Ms. Stiller, like Diana, provides excellent emotional conflict for her castmates to react and grow through. Her voice was ready for this role, ah-hem, made for this role some might say. She made me feel a mom’s love, anxiety, and grief.

Her husband, Dan, played by Trent Everett Byers, has a difficult reactionary role as a dad and married man who must pick up the pieces and try his best to hold his family together. He is burdened, taxed, and hopeful throughout. Mr. Byers was most excellent in voice and acting as the head of the household. He had me in tears with his art of sitting in a chair simply reacting to his wife.

Completing the family unit was daughter, Natalie, played by Clara Wilson and son, Gabe, played by Geoffrey Barnes. They both were outstanding, and I enjoyed their sibling conflict, which was highlighted in the song “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl”. Mr. Barnes has grown as an actor since I saw him last and his Gabe echoed his mother Diana, (Ms. Stiller) so very well and provided me with both joy and sorrow. I am not certain if the hair slightly in the eyes for both mother and son characters was intentional or not, but it was a nice touch that joined their souls for me. Ms. Wilson’s angsty teen daughter was true and influential though I think she was tentative in some of the more powerful singing numbers. I enjoyed her voice; I wanted to hear more from her.

The supporting characters of the doctors and the boyfriend were well played by Benjamin Horman and Nicholas Long. Both gave equally lovely renditions of calming strength. Mr. Horman’s gentleness as a psychiatric doctor was very nice, but sometimes I lost his speaking voice when the HVAC system kicked on plus his sexual moments could have been a tosh more confident. His singing voice was beautiful. Mr. Long, as the Daughter’s boyfriend, Henry, gave a sweetly sensitive and strong man-in-the-making supportive companionship to Ms. Wilson’s conflicted Natalie.

Though there were a few minor lighting shadows on faces that drew my focus at times, as well as one poorly placed downstage chair at the family table that blocked some fine acting and white socks that should have been dress socks, the visual impact in the production was well thought out by the design team. I liked the first-rate use of colors for meanings via costumes and lighting. The tech elements added to the story quite well, specifically the specials of the lamp and strobe and use of the cyclorama. Solid choices in costuming go a long way for me. The white and light near the end of the show made for a brighter final reality.

Kudos to director Sarah Thomas, her cast, and crew. I was entertained and proud. I enjoyed the connections made with the almost full audience and me. The short pre-show song selections performed by a sort-of-show-choir troupe of gifted singers also worked. Each song selected from musicals that deal with mental/emotionally real issues was appreciated as an effective ramp-up, big-hill climb to the emotional roller coaster that is Next to Normal. This show runs for just 2 more dates next weekend. Escape, connect, or be transformed, CAMT brings it all.

Featuring Geoffrey Barnes, Trent Everett Byers, Benjamin Horman, Nicholas Long, Jess Harris Stiller, & Clara Wilson

Next to Normal

November 8, 10, 15, & 17 @ 7:00 PM

E-mail to reserve seats. Pay at the door, cash only. Prices are $5 for students/faculty, $10 for general admission.

Cardinals for the Appreciation of Musical Theatre
U of L George Howe Red Barn
2011 South Brook Street
Louisville, KY 40208.


Jennifer Starr is a LA (Louisville Area) performer and director that has been involved with Louisville Community Theatre for 11 years.  She has a BA in Theatre from EKU and serves on the board of directors for The Mind’s Eye Theatre Company.