Next to Normal

Photo / Kathy sandham

Gabe (Ben Donahoo) gets between Diana (Aimee Collier) and Dan (Rick McGuigan).

“Next to Normal,” a rock musical about mental illness, could easily be a downer, but the luminous Lakeland Civic Theatre production of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) proved an exhilarating high.

I saw the Broadway and PlayhouseSquare productions of this revolutionary musical, and the intimacy, clarity and raw emotional power of this unforgettable production surpassed both prior experiences. Everything about this remarkable production smacked of greatness.

Director Martin Friedman’s boldly original concept and staging; set and lighting genius Trad A Burns’ hypnotic play of light and darkness; the pulsating music of musical director Jordan Cooper and the orchestra, and a bravura ensemble of penetrating characterizations and rich vocals held me in thrall throughout. Even the amplification system was pitch-perfect.

Meet the dysfunctional Goodman family. Diana (Amiee Collier) suffers from bipolar disorder and delusions triggered by a traumatic event early in her marriage. Collier perfectly captures a character trying to keep from falling off a psychological cliff. Her long-suffering husband, Dan, (a stoical, steadfast Rick McGuigan) struggles to cope while denying his own psychological pain. Son Gabe (a winning Ben Donahoo) gets all of mom’s attention, while daughter Natalie (Jewish actor Emma Wahl) is mostly invisible to her preoccupied parents. Natalie personifies the angry, troubled and brilliant teenager who resents her mom and fears turning into her. She strikes up a relationship and shares pot with fellow student Henry (a sweetly gawky Pat Miller).

The show tracks Diana’s mental illness through treatments including pills, talk therapy and electroshock therapy. A group of white coats hawking pills like a TV commercial provides a satiric look at the psychopharmacological industry.

Timothy J. Allen gives Diana’s doctors the right dose of black humor as the pill-obsessed Dr. Fine, and also as talk therapist Dr. Madden, who becomes a rock star in Diana’s delusional state.

The play is an honest depiction of mental illness and the toll it takes. It’s also about grieving a loss, guilt, drug abuse, memory, and letting go.

The foundering relationship between Dan and Diana plays against one emerging between Natalie and Henry. Friedman’s sensitive staging effectively illustrates the waning and waxing of love.

Burns’ mesmerizing set, filling the proscenium with lamps in all shapes and sizes connected by interlocking threads, serves as a metaphor for light and dark. It’s a brilliant conceit that also references the wiring in Diana’s jumbled brain. The lighting becomes another character in the play. Diana’s struggle to find the light in the darkness of her soul is symbolized by the flick of a switch.

A challenging score of more than 30 songs includes overlapping duets, trios and quartets, akin to opera. Though created in the rock idiom, ‘Normal’ is very Sondheimesque. The extraordinary cast, both solo and in harmony, pulls off its haunting melodies and verbal acrobatics without a hitch.

Vocal highlights include Diana remembering her younger self in “I Miss the Mountains”; “You Don’t Know,” in which the tormented Diana describes what it means to die while still alive; Henry’s sweet song of seduction in “ Perfect for You,” and the touching “A Light in the Dark,” as Diana and Dan take a chance on a better future.

From the thrilling opener, “Just Another Day,” to the moving closing number, “Light,” the show blew me away.

WHAT: “Next to Normal”

WHERE: Lakeland Civic Theatre, Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland

WHEN: Through Sunday, Feb. 17

TICKETS & INFO: 440-525-7526 tickets; info: martinfriedman@yahoo.com

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