Now that we’ve proven that there is no subject too awful to write a musical about (see: serial killers and people on roller skates pretending to be choo-choo trains), the challenge becomes mounting such shows in ways that thoroughly involve the audience.
In Next to Normal, the show about a woman with bi-polar mental issues, Beck Center goes a long way towards that goal. With stellar performances in the two lead roles, one feels the visceral despair of afflicted Diana and her husband Dan as they struggle to maintain a “normal” life.
It is only in a couple of the smaller roles where the performances don’t measure up and the entire picture of a family in crisis becomes a little blurry.
With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, NTN has become a favorite of many theaters, even with its dicey topic. Indeed, it was only a few weeks ago that Lakeland Civic Theatre put on the same show, and splendidly so.
This Beck production, directed by the estimable Victoria Bussert, is a collaboration with the Baldwin Wallace University Music Theatre Program. And the music, under the direction of Nancy Maier, is virtually spotless. Strong voices throughout carry the virtually sung-through story along, with complex overlapping passages handled with professional élan.
And the music is enhanced by the performance of Katherine DeBoer as bedeviled Diana. Whether she’s in a manic state slapping sandwiches together on the floor or hallucinating about her son Gabe, DeBoer is fully present at all times in Diana’s distorted and whirling mind.
She is matched by Scott Plate as her husband Dan, dutifully and lovingly trying to keep Diana moving forward while questioning himself along the way. Plate’s rendition of the Act One closer, “A Light in the Dark,” is tender and shattering.
Also excellent is Chris McCarrell as Gabe, displaying an edge and a refusal to be ignored that gives his mysterious character extra punch.
Less successful is Caroline Murrah who tries too hard as over-achieving daughter Natalie. Murrah lacks the dull-eyed stare and the hollow affect where high-functioning but tormented teens often live.
Natalie is supposedly rescued by a fellow outcast, classmate stoner Henry, but from his posture to his speaking voice, Ellis Dawson conveys pretty much the opposite vibe of a slacker kid addicted to giggle weed. As a result, some of his lines, which are intended to be ironic and funny (“Can I see Natalie? I need help with homework.”) seem oddly truthful.
Phil Carroll adds some nice moments as Diana’s docs, but doesn’t make these pill-pushers as menacing (quietly or overtly) as they might be.
Production designer Jeff Herrmann has designed a fascinating two level set with multiple staircases, tilting platforms and surreal medicine cabinets arrayed with plastic pill bottles that comments the play's theme while maximizing the small Studio Theater space.
But most importantly, director Bussert brings the poignant story of Dan and Diana, and Gabe, front and center, making this Next to Normal a powerful and memorable experience.
Next to Normal
Through April 21*at Beck Center, produced in collaboration with the Baldwin Wallace University Music Theatre Program, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540
* Not a typo, this is an eight-week run!