This season at Bootless Stageworks brings back some of its best productions from previous years that, for one reason or another, didn’t get the audiences they deserved the first time around.
In the case of “Next to Normal,” their first production happened during a transitional phase five years ago, when the theater company moved into a warehouse space in Newport. It was meant to be its permanent venue, which didn’t work out — and, really, it’s just as well. During the “Next to Normal” production in 2013, a thunderstorm struck, and the rain hitting the flat roof echoed through the space, nearly drowning out the actors.
But that was then. Bootless has now rooted itself in a “black box” type theater space in the St. Stephen’s Church on Broom Street, its permanent home.
It was time to revisit “Next to Normal,” an emotional story about a family dealing with mental illness and tragedy, set to a catchy pop-rock musical score by Tom Kitt.
Traditionally, the show has a large two-story stage set of a suburban home. The Newport production did, and it was impressive. At St. Stephen’s, just a couple of steps divide the minimally-dressed levels, and it shows that the show doesn’t need a fancy set — in fact, stripped down, it offers more intimacy with the audience.
It helps that the performances are powerful and relatable. The main — Tara Herweg as Diana, a mother struggling with mental illness; Michael Sheldon as Dan, her long-suffering husband; Shannon Q. Harkins as her teenage daughter, Natalie and Antoine Martinez-Jones as her son, Gabe — keep up with every song and every emotion.
Rounding out the cast, Michael Vandie delivers Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend, with a sweet, sometimes stoned, earnestly, while Shaun Yates captures Diana’s doctors — including the “scary rockstar” — effectively.
The live orchestra, directed by James W Fuerst, is made up of just six musicians, yet manages to sound bigger, matching the (almost) rock opera scale of the score.
In the director’s note, Rosanne DellAversano talks openly about her personal connection to the show’s challenging themes. The closeness and passion she has for the show comes through. This is not an easy show to pull off, but Bootless has done it twice.
“Next to Normal” runs through May 19. For tickets and more information, go to bootless.org.
Photo credit: Justin Walsh