Next to Normal Reviewed

Bipolar Disorder Makes Great Musical Theater

<i>Next to Normal</i>

Out of the Box Theatre Company proudly identifies itself as specializing in “edgy” musicals. While that’s entirely accurate, I’m wondering if the adjective might scare away audiences. Some people equate “edgy” with cold or cynical, which this company’s offerings definitely are not.

Its strong and sensitive production of the 2009 Tony Award–winner Next to Normal reminds us that even when tackling difficult subject matter, musical theater remains our most open-hearted art form. In the hands of a very capable cast, this is a consistently compelling, deeply moving show.

A musical about mental illness isn’t anyone’s idea of escapist entertainment, but Next to Normal is neither clinically detached nor unrelievedly bleak. Rather, it is infused with a deep compassion for all of its characters — people who are, after all, stumbling through life and attempting to avoid the pitfalls fate has placed in their way. That makes them an awful lot like the rest of us “normal” folk.

The plot centers on a suburban family: Diana (Deborah Bertling), her husband Dan (Matthew Wiedle), and their teenage children Natalie (Taylor Courtney), and Gabe (Connor Gould). Diana, as we soon learn, suffers from bipolar disorder — a predisposition toward which she apparently inherited. Her acute symptoms, including ongoing hallucinations and hyperactivity followed by depression, were triggered by what her doctor calls “a traumatic event” 16 years earlier.

The play tracks Diana’s progress and relapses, along with Natalie’s tentative love affair with an affable young stoner (Skyler Jones). But on a deeper level, the drama centers on the family’s coming to terms with the aforementioned trauma (the nature of which shall not be revealed here). Astutely, it points out that identifying one member of a family as the “patient” or “problem” allows others to avoid dealing with their own issues, and their complicity in the dysfunction. At least for a while.

Director Samantha Eve’s production is admirably straightforward. Material of this emotional and intellectual complexity (the show, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama) is best presented simply, with a minimum of razzle-dazzle.

So Theodore Michael Dolas’s set consists of little more than a few pieces of generic furniture and a scaffolding so some scenes can take place on a second level. The very capable five-piece band, led by keyboardist John Douglas, sits at the rear, playing Tom Kitt’s expressive, eclectic score.

The actors all inhabit their characters beautifully. Bertling convincingly conveys Diana’s ever-shifting moods of defiance, frustration, confusion, anger, sorrow, and love. Wiedle embodies Dan’s willed optimism, as well as the despair that lurks just under its surface. Courtney gives a convincing portrayal of teenage angst and snark, while also providing moving glimpses of the deep hurt Natalie feels from a lifetime of parental neglect.

Given the minimal set, the costumes were unusually important in indicating what the characters were doing/feeling at any given moment, and they did that quite effectively. (Eve is also the uncredited costume designer.) All in all, this is a sensitive production of a superb modern musical, one very much worth getting to know.


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