In new Montclair home, Vanguard Theater Company impresses with ‘Next to Normal’

next to normal review

Erica Dorfler, left, and Morgan Scott in the Vanguard Theater Company’s “Next to Normal.”

The Vanguard Theater Company‘s current production of “Next to Normal” — its first main stage production in its recently opened new home, the Vanguard Theater in Montclair — is auspicious in two ways. The high quality of the production is impressive. But also, the choice of this musical, itself, makes a bold statement.

Though not a new work — it was first produced in 2008, subsequently winning three Tonys as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — “Next to Normal” still seems ahead of its time, exploring a suburban housewife’s struggle with mental illness. The book and lyrics (by Brian Yorkey) have plenty of humor, and the music (by Tom Kitt) is quite energetic and melodically engaging. But “Next to Normal” still goes to some very dark places.

In this production, directed by Vanguard’s founding artistic director Janeece Freeman Clark, Broadway veteran Erica Dorfler gives a deeply compelling performance as the complex central character, Diana, who underwent a traumatic incident decades ago and still can’t move past it. She’s trying to hold her life, and her family, together, with the help of therapy and medication, but appears to be a losing the battle.

Lou Steele plays Diana’s supportive but frustrated husband Dan — an architect “living on a latte and a prayer,” as he puts it — and Morgan Scott plays two doctors who treat her. The other roles have alternating cast members: The night I went, it was Racquel Williams and Charlie Fusari as Diana and Dan’s teenage children, Natalie and Gabe, and Draytin Freude as Natalie’s suitor, Henry.

Racquel Williams and Charlie Fusari in “Next to Normal.”

“You’re kind of a confusing person,” says Henry to the over-achieving Natalie at one point, when she gives him mixed signals about her interest in him.

“You should meet my mother,” she deadpans.

The musical gets deeply into the complications of Diana’s treatments — the deadening effect of her medication, her idealization of her therapist, etc. — while also showing the ripple effects of what she’s going through: How Dan, for instance, becomes so cheerful in his effort to support Diana he starts to become annoying, and how Natalie keeps herself tightly wrapped (until she overcompensates in the other direction). There are genuinely shocking moments, and the ending strikes a nice balance of being positive without resolving everything too neatly.

As Natalie sings, “I don’t need a life that’s normal/That’s way too far away/But something next to normal would be okay.”

I was impressed with the singing voices of all the actors, how smoothly they negotiated the tricky duets and group numbers Kitt has written, and how they were able to believably ramp up their intensity at the moments when that was called for. The set design was simple but sleek, evoking the suburban normality Diana and Dan are yearning for, but finding elusive.

Lou Steele, left, and Charlie Fusari in “Next to Normal.”

The Vanguard Theater Company (which was founded in 2015 and, in its new home, becomes Montclair’s only theater company) has lofty goals beyond just presenting first-class shows.

Clark defines the theater’s mission as “changing the narrative through theater dedicated to DREAM — Diversity, Reciprocity, Education, Activism & Mentorship.” “Next to Normal” is being presented in partnership with two mental health organizations, Montclair’s Integrated Care Concepts, and New York’s Darkness Rising Project, with the goal of helping to bring their services to the attention of attendees.

Also, the play was cast non-traditionally, with a woman playing the two doctors (usually played by men in the past), a Black woman in the lead role (usually played by a white woman), and both Black and white actors cast as the children. Due to the rotating cast, actors of different colors play the same part on different nights.

“It’s been interesting in the rehearsal room observing how shifting the complexions of the actors tells a very different story — even with the same text,” writes Clark in the program.

“To serve Vanguard’s commitment to Education and Activism, we wanted this production to call attention to the fact that in the African American community, mental health issues are often compounded by the psychological stress of systemic racism, which, though not written into this story — certainly plays a major part through our color conscious casting.”

The Vanguard Theater Company will present “Next to Normal” at the Vanguard Theater in Montclair through Nov. 21. Visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.

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