Most people reading this have probably dealt with depression in family or friends or know someone who has. So it may be difficult to imagine a musical about a woman suffering from one of its worst forms, bipolar disorder and the effect is has on her family. Yet the musical works. It is called Next to Normal and you can see it now at Riverside Theatre on the intimate Waxlax Stage.
Next to Normal is a rock musical written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey that played on Broadway from 2009-2011 for more than 700 performances and ended up earning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize (only nine musicals have been so honored between 1930-2010) and three Tony Awards.
The lead character is Diana, a suburban mother, who, along with her family, takes us on a roller coaster ride through her bipolar disorder, from towering highs to spirit crushing lows, with little respite in between. She is at once a grieving mother, a suicidal wife and a fanatical homemaker. Example: in one scene she made enough sandwiches to feed an army that no one will eat because she made them on the kitchen floor.
Judy McLane, who plays Diana, should really be given credit for playing six or seven roles because that is what it takes to show an audience how depression just rips at your soul.
Eric Kunze plays her exasperated husband, Dan, trying unsuccessfully to break through her wall of depression with limited life skills in dealing with it. Isabella Stansbury, as teen daughter Natalie, suffers from benign neglect and reacts with a combination of anger and hurt. Natalie’s love interest, Henry, is played by Clay Singer, who tries to provide stability in her unstable life. Gabe the son is portrayed by Patrick Mobley and his role is, well, you have to see the show to understand.
Diana goes through a litany of drugs from her psychopharmacologist (yes, it is a medical specialty, not a synonym for drug dealer) that offer no relief. After attempting suicide, she then faces the last resort, ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy.
Once thought to be the province of insane asylums, ECT today is much more accepted but still carries risks. In Diana’s case, after treatment she first experiences total memory loss. She doesn’t recognize her family or her home and it seems as though the loss will be permanent until a mental trigger brings her back to reality. Unfortunately, it is not the reality her family sought. In the end, everything works out for each of them and all characters appeared on stage together to take their final bows.
There are a number of elements that make this show entertaining. First of all, we can empathize with each of the family members, expertly showcased in the performers’ acting, singing and stage presence. The onstage musicians are incredibly good and the musical score ranges from tearful ballads to foot tapping rockers. Finally, the 100-seat Waxlax theatre itself provides an intimacy that makes the show personal for every audience member.
Next to Normal is playing until February 10. Tickets are only $75 (yes, very affordable for a Broadway quality musical!) and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 772-231-6990 or online at www.riversidetheatre.com.