A musical about bipolar disorder?
Yes, is the answer. And it's quite good.
The Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of "Next to Normal," both a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, is a cerebral night at the theater. Despite your connection to bipolar disorder, or a slew of other referenced mental illnesses, the show address a universal quandary: how do we pick ourselves up from bottom-out grief? What choice do we have in happiness, and what matters are just out of our control?
It isn't happy or easy to get through, but it's worth the effort. Even if the ending is a poster-child for dramatic stereotypes, it convinces us that there is hope and help on the way.
ICTC does a fine job with the material, which while emotionally riveting, is often artistically saccharine. There are lovely, clear moments of near-poetry in Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics, but often the metaphors of bipolar disorder – the light and the dark, the real and the imagined, the suffocation and the clarity – get the better of them. Just when we're primed for a character's raw testimony of the sure-anguish being endured, we're delivered a Hallmark card signed by a rubber stamp.
There's also disparity in Tom Kitt's score, which while not melodically bad, is not stylistically in tune with the nature of these ordeals. The score is laden with rock 'n' roll, which thematically plays into protagonist Diana's headspace (she imagines her psychiatrists, who are quick to prescribe her a menu of pills, as rock stars), but lets us down with too much vanilla. Kitt's music is a carbon copy of all the decent songs by Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and the Eagles, plus a few coffee commercials. What should be jarring and jagged is smooth and tempered.
These dramaturgical concerns aside, this production boasts a gifted cast that nails these difficult roles head-on. They manage to lift this mediocre piece, rife with both piercing moments and lame writing, to a captivating place.
Jenn Stafford, as Diana, carries the brunt of the show's heavy lifting. Diana is a mother well past the verge of a nervous breakdown; she lives inside of one every day, and pushes her disjointed family to the brink as well. The family's secret is best left unmentioned here, but it's a heartbreaker when revealed.
Stafford navigates her wild ride with a sort of bliss that is unexpected and well played. She plays up the lunacy of Diana's mental anguish, but stops short of playing her as an archetypical lunatic. Stafford keeps it all in Diana's head, and shows it to us in her beady eyes, gaping mouth and fragile, angelic voice. It's a curious mix of textures, and bodes well for this cramped character.
Patrick Cameron and Renee Landrigan, as children Gabe and Natalie, are superb. They skirt around Yorkey's clichéd modern teenagers by making smart decision after smart decision. Cameron is not only vocally focused, he is astute and acute in his characterization of Diana and Dan's (Jason Watson) aching son. Landrigan, though cursed with an after-school special's worth of anti-drug preaching, finds all the tender crevices in her character's torn soul. Her story line is unoriginal, but Landrigan's storytelling is honest. Like Cameron, her voice is especially valuable.
Watson, who played the role of Dan on the "Next to Normal" first national tour, brings the most convincing realness of his cast mates. Dan comes across as a wallflower, unable to engage with his children and unwilling to confront his wife's psychological needs. Just when you think he's a lousy man, he strikes you with an emotional depth that bends this road even more. Watson brings out his complicated character's subtlety and grace with just the right precision.
David Autovino and Jacob Albarella are nicely serviceable in small, forgettable roles, rounding out an ensemble that capably elevates their unimpressive material.
> THEATER REVIEW
Next to Normal
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)