Next to Normal

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Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

THERE’S A relentless honesty in Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize winning musical drama Jewel Theatre Company launched last weekend in Santa Cruz.

For anyone my age, its loud rock music is neither comforting nor predictable, its theme of mental illness is something I’ve brushed up against at second-hand but never felt compelled to see explored musically. Yet by the end of Friday’s opening night at the Colligan, I felt I’d experienced what may be the most excitingly innovative stage musical since West Side Story.

I don’t know the clinical history of bipolar disorder, but composer Tom Kitt and librettist Brian Yorkey dramatize its symptoms in the struggles of a woman named Diana Goodman with a moving clarity you can’t block from view or stop thinking about on your journey home from the show.

The cyclonic emotional ups and downs, the desperate efforts at a cure, wreak havoc not just in Diana but in her standard middle class husband Dan and their daughter Natalie. Dan is a solid rock of wise support and loving understanding. Natalie is a troubled teen, so wounded by Diana’s lifelong neglect (“the invisible girl”) that she starts escaping into booze and barbiturates with a determination that suggests she’s on her way to becoming a clone of her mother. Like Diana, she also has patient and adoring male support in the person of a tousled classmate named Henry. One of the wonders of the script and the score is the brilliance with which Kitt and Yorkey counterpoint the situation of the adult couple, Dan and Diana, with the situation of their adolescent counterparts, Henry and Natalie. It happens most notably in a pair of interlocking songs (“Why Stay”/“A Promise”) sung in different spaces but with identical lyrics that express contrasting but equally applicable truths about each relationship.

If it all sounds grim and morbid, think again. The script and production touch the shocks and disappointments of this journey of a troubled soul without missing a single bit of its wry comedy. There’s the darkly ironic moment when Diana accepts the fact that a cocktail of prescription drugs has finally cured her mood swings and hallucinations, and realizes that she actually preferred those demons (“I miss the mountains”) to a life of bland, stabilized unreality.

One and all, the cast sing and act wonderfully. As Diana, Lee Ann Payne has a role that makes emotional demands it would be hard to parallel this side of Willy Loman. She meets the challenge admirably. Her singing voice is powerful and she moves with the incisive clarity of a dancer, even in Diana’s moments of deranged confusion. As Dan, Christopher Reber makes downright goodness and compassion as compelling as Payne’s emotional fireworks.

The youngsters are just as convincing. As Natalie, Brittany Law looks enough like Payne to be her biological daughter. She is effective in Natalie’s brooding escapes into moody spasms of keyboard Mozart early in the action and she explodes impressively into pill-popping defiance after her mother’s chaotic sickness keeps both parents from a promised-attendance at a piano recital.

Ryland Gordon is a delightful, caring and lovingly persistent Henry, wise beyond his years. He masks a profound concern for the girl he loves behind a breezy and casual performance of teenaged detachment.

Then there are the two psychotherapists who make successive stabs at curing the troubled Diana, who responds by casting each of them in lurid hallucinations, Dr Fine as a fuss-budget pill pushing machine (“My psychopharmacologist and I”) and suave Dr Maddon as a hip-rolling klieg-lighted rock star. Versatile and resourceful, Nick Galego plays both therapists with such wit and contrast of character that I had to check my program to believe it was the same guy.

As a boy named Gabe, in some ways the most demanding role in the play, Coleton Schmitto is forceful and vivid (“I’m Alive”) as he gives life and reality (I won’t describe how) to the troubled inner world of Diana Goodman’s manic-depression.

I don’t think I have ever watched a musical where dramatic action and musical score are so organically intertwined as they are in Next to Normal. There is very little spoken dialogue. Almost everything that happens happens musically, not in vocal numbers which invite applause or reach out for sympathy, but as direct, immediate outpourings of what the singer is feeling at that moment. The songs fit too closely into the story and the characters who give it life to supply tunes you’ll whistle in the lobby.

It’s an intense, beautifully crafted show, the action impressively directed by Julie James and the music played with precision and feeling by a six-member on-stage band. Catch it if you possibly can, weekends between now and December 11th.