|Andrea Thorpe's character Diana shows her extreme highs and lows in
"Next to Normal,"
presented through Aug. 16 by Runaway Stage Productions.
For those of us who grew up with musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Meredith Willson, there is a certain formulaic expectation in our musicals, which basically were love stories with a bit of conflict thrown in, which was usually resolved by the finale.
Jonathan Larson shattered that illusion when his “Rent” premiered on Broadway; it was a raw rock opera about AIDS and drugs and lots of not very pretty things. It took Broadway by storm. Then came “Spring Awakening” about puberty and suicide, another blockbuster. They opened the door to other musicals that don’t end happily ever after.
Now, along comes “Next to Normal,” a rock musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), under the direction of Bob Baxter, about bipolar disorder.
The piece began in 1998 as a short sketch about a woman undergoing electroshock therapy and originally was titled “Feeling Electric.” Over the next 10 years it grew and developed and finally opened off-Broadway as “Next to Normal” in 2008 and won the Outer Critics’ Circle award for Outstanding Score and Drama Desk award nominations for Outstanding Actress and Outstanding Score.
After a run in Washington, D.C., it reopened on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for 11 Tony awards and won three (Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress). It also became the eighth musical in the history of the Pulitzer Prizes to win a prize for drama.
Mental illness is not pretty and it affects not only the person suffering, but the family as well. Andrea Thorpe (whom Davis Comic Opera Company patrons may remember from her portrayal of Fantine in last year’s “Les Miserables”) plays Diane Goodman, who has suffered from bipolar depression since the death of her son many years ago. This is a tricky role in which the character runs the gamut from confusion to pain to rage, but still must be sympathetic so the audience cares about her. Thorpe carries it off beautifully.
She has a very supportive husband in Dan (Darryl Strohl-DeHerrera), who is willing to help her try many treatments, and try every new medicine that comes along. The emotional toll of Diana’s illness on Dan gradually becomes apparent, as her mood swings begin to wear him down.
Kristina Dizon is perhaps the saddest character, Natalie, the child born after the death of her brother, who has been ignored all of her life and we see how this has affected her. Even her new boyfriend Henry (Tylen Einweck), who doesn’t realize what he is getting into and is very naive in his introduction to mental illness, can’t quite bring happiness to her life.
Outstanding is Michael Roivas as hallucination of the now grown-up dead child, Gabe. His song “I’m Alive” taunts Diane to believe that he is real again.
I am more than memory, I am what might be /
I am mystery /
You know me /
So show me
When I appear it’s not so clear
if I’m a simple spirit or I’m flesh and blood
Taylor Presnall plays two different therapists with two different approaches to Diane’s problem, neither of whom really seems to understand her problem.
The black-box theater is tiny, making the audience really a part of the family (at one point I considered leaning over and turning off the table lamp that was shining in my eyes!), and with everyone squished in so tightly, moving large set pieces down the narrow aisles is an experience, especially for those sitting on the aisle. But the intimacy adds another dimension to the appreciation of what is happening on stage.
The seven-piece orchestra, under the coordination of keyboardist Deann Golz, is distributed across the two levels of the stage and mostly performs well, except for a couple of spectacular glitches that made the audience jump.
At the conclusion of the play, we have examined everything from electroshock therapy to faulty medication and see the frustration not only for the patient but also for the family. There is a possibility of a happily ever after, but it would take a sequel to know exactly how it all comes out.