Story: At first glance, the Goodmans seem like a typical American suburban family. In the morning, husband Dan grabs some breakfast on his way to work and his wife Diana makes sandwiches for the children’s lunches. Natalie is a high school student with a talent for playing the piano, while her older brother Gabe seems to revel in making mischief for his mother, who clearly loves him.
That’s not a true picture, though. For 16 years Diana has suffered from bipolar disorder brought about by the traumatic death of her son as an infant. She’s held fast to his memory since then and has even “grown” him into a teenager. While her husband and daughter love her, Dan’s own psychological health is frazzled by years of trying to get Diana on the road to mental health. As for Natalie, she resents playing second fiddle to a brother who died before she was born, as she tells Henry, a fellow student who has a crush on her.
Diana has spent years under the observation of Dr. Fine, who prescribes a smorgasbord of varied medications in an attempt to control her disorder. After Diana abandons the drugs, Dan takes her to Dr. Madden, who attempts to help Diana without prescriptions, even to the extent of using hypnosis and eventually electroconvulsive therapy.
Through it all, Diana holds fast to her son and to her delusions as she struggles to find some sort of happiness in her life. But can she ever come to peace with the past?
Highlights: Insight Theatre Company is kicking off its 10th anniversary season with a fine version of this rock musical that was a surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Other Info: Mental illness is an unlikely subject for a musical, but Next to Normal garnered 11 Tony Award nominations in 2009, earning wins for Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. It features music by Tom Kitt and lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey.
Kitt’s musical score is punctuated with driving rock riffs that propel the downbeat story in exhilarating fashion, beginning with the major opening number, Just Another Day. Choreographer and assistant director Trace Turner helps shape an energetic performance by Spencer Davis Milford as Gabe, who essentially speaks only to Diana but who permeates the stage with gymnastic leaps of enthusiasm as her lovable ‘problem’ child.
Robbie Ashurst’s scenic design is an eerie combination of an innocuous-looking stage that is filled on both sides with shelves containing empty photo frames and with a back wall covered with windows of varying sizes and heights, giving it a ‘rabbit hole’ appearance for Diana’s fantasies and troubled world.
Debby Lennon as Diana strongly displays her distinctive and powerful voice on tunes throughout the show’s two acts, such as ballads like I Dreamed a Dance or more frenetic numbers such as My Psychopharmacologist and I. Yorkey’s sophisticated and intelligent lyrics prove a winning match for Kitt’s compelling melodies, and director Edward Coffield elicits believable performances out of his studied cast.
John Flack is convincing as the dutiful but wary Dan, who stays with his wife despite her ongoing and formidable challenges, too often to the detriment of their daughter. Libby Jasper excellently conveys the frustrations and anger of Natalie, who carries an emotional burden beyond the angst of any teen and strikes back when her mother continues her precipitous decline.
Ryan Scott Foizey, who portrayed Gabe in New Line Theatre’s presentation of Next to Normal a few years ago, is very good as Diana’s psychotherapists, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, especially humorous when Diana envisions Madden as a rock star. Max Bahneman completes the cast as Henry, Natalie’s staunchest supporter whose admiration makes the advancement to love when her family life seems to decline even further.
Conductor Ron McGowan leads a spirited four-piece band in a fierce interpretation of Kitt’s compositions, with guitarist Aaron Brown, drummer/percussionist Michael Ferguson, Devon Smith on bass and McGowan at the keyboard.
Coffield gives everyone plenty of room to maneuver on the .ZACK Incubator stage, the new home of Insight Theatre, although sightlines can be a problem for audiences in certain areas trying to see far stage right. Pacing is measured throughout, giving the show an even keel even if the subject matter is anything but.
Charlotte Wester adds the complementary lighting design, noteworthy in the ECT scene, Laura Hanson is costume designer and James Blanton provides sound design.
Next to Normal is dark much of the time, but creators Kitt and Yorkey try to present Diana’s bipolar condition in a raucous, rock fashion that accentuates the harrowing existence within her mind. Insight’s rendition is a success both in its delivery of the musical moments as well as a finely acted production.
Play: Next to Normal
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: .ZACK Incubator, 3224 Locust Street
Dates: June 15-18, 22-25
Tickets: $20-$35; contact insighttheatrecompany.com or 556-1293
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb