Fom left: Eric Kunze, Judy McLane, Clay Singer and Isabella Stansbury in NEXT TO NORMAL at Riverside Theatre.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Riverside Theatre is opening its season with some powerful productions challenging audiences to revisit notions of musical classics and open their minds to stunning works of contemporary theater. First, it was the in-your-face “Evita” and now its one of contemporary theater’s most powerful rock musicals, “Next to Normal.”
For the uninitiated, “Next to Normal” concerns a family dealing with the mother’s bipolar disorder. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards. It’s running now in Riverside Theatre’s intimate Waxlax Stage which is, basically a “black box theater” with flexible staging and comfortable seating.
As the show begins, everything seems in place in a loving family. It’s early morning, very early, but there is an optimistic, almost chipper air to the setting. A nurturing mother chastises her son for getting in late the night before hinting to her husband that they might have an affectionate interlude before the day really gets started. The daughter buzzes in, stressed over school. Relax, says the mother, our domestic goddess holding it all together, singing “We’re the perfect loving family so adoring.”
The only thing missing is a white picket fence. Or so it seems. For this family is just next to being normal. We soon learn that in this home, order is desperately sought. One step outside the lines might lead to chaos. Hinting at impending emotional anarchy is a loaf of bread that the mother nearly attacks in a manic episode.
Mental illness is certainly an unusual subject matter for a musical. But the groundbreaking work of lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt tackles this subject and delivers a powerful theatrical experience with thrilling music, characters you love and a simple but stunning storyline all of which engage totally and linger for days. It brings us viscerally into the lives of this family. We see how the mother’s disorder affects them while at the same time witnessing abiding love for each other and eventual acceptance of life as it has been dealt to them.
There is Dan, the father, who deeply loves his family and is thoroughly dedicated to them. Hoping his wife, Diana, will improve, he rides the emotional roller coaster, up to those highs of delusion-inducing positivity singing “It’s Going to be Good!” He then plummets to the lows of sadness and loss that is his reality.
Natalie, the daughter, has been ignored most of her life because the mother pays more attention to her son, Gabe, who both torments and comforts the mother. Deepening feelings for her boyfriend, Henry, awaken Natalie’s worries about her own sanity.
Unlike Dan, though, Natalie is more realistic about what to expect from the mother. She has lived this reality her entire life while the father knew the mother before anyone knew about the lurking mental illness.
Like Dan, Diana rides the highs and lows, but hers is due to a manic-depressive disorder. It is through her that we get a glimpse into the suffering experienced by someone with this affliction.
Taking an array of pills to control her condition, Diana sings “I Miss the Mountains,” in which she laments “Everything is balanced here…nothing’s real.”
While the visual design differs from the original Broadway show, Riverside’s production, designed and directed by Allen D. Cornell, evokes its signature stark look and tight pacing that folds into itself, one scene overlapping into another. Set pieces efficiently pushed on and off, taking us quickly into a multitude of locations, including the kitchen, the basement, a hospital room, a school, and more. Moreover, costume designer Kurt Alger adheres to the purple color palette while lighting designer Julie Duro uses the series of lights to pulsate with the music and energize mood.
The wonderful six-piece orchestra conducted by Ken Clifton sits onstage, up behind a black screen making them barely visible. They weave recurring musical motifs throughout, heightening the action and emotion.
Keeping step with the driving sound and constant movement folding from one scene to the next is the terrific cast, three of them (the father, the mother and the doctor) with Broadway credits.
As Diana, Judy McLane has a flawless voice which hits every song’s power and urgency.
Clay Singer finds a sweet adolescent spot to Henry, the boyfriend. Patrick Mobley gives beautiful voice and teenage swagger to “I’m Alive.” And P.J. Griffith turns in a strong performance as the two doctors, one rather reserved and the other rather rock-star sexy.
But it is Eric Kunze and Isabella Stansbury who win our hearts here from the get-go. They turn in winning portrayals of Dan, the father, and Natalie, the daughter. They not only sing beautifully, but they also dig into the souls of their characters and serve up the big emotion often missing from the show’s first act.
We root for Dan when, so bereft, he sings to his wife “I am the one who knows you/ I am the one who cares.” We feel the daughter’s awful sense of neglect when Stansbury sings the superb number, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl/Son of steel and daughter of air…she’s not there.”
While the first act does not bring the range of real emotion you might expect, there will be plenty of it in the second act. The duet with Stansbury and McLane, “Maybe/(Next to Normal),” in which the daughter and mother relate honestly, will wreck you. This is where the show gains emotional steam and delivers the expected gut punch. But then there’s “So Anyway” with Dan and Diana, so be sure to save some of your tissues for that. Not gonna say any more.
Don’t let a fear of deep feelings keep you away from “Next to Normal.” Indeed, if you have the emotional stamina, you will be rewarded with a most moving and memorable theater experience. Just be sure to bring the tissues. And don’t be embarrassed about wiping the tears away. Everyone will be doing the same thing.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Next to Normal” runs through Feb. 10 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach, FL. Tickets are $75. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running next week in VeroNews 32963.