When potential backers first heard a proposal for Next to Normal, they probably replied: “A musical about bipolar disorder? Like, huh?” Either that or, with voice lowered, “riiight.”
Yes, and a rock musical at that. And San Diego Musical Theatre does a stellar job with the Pulitzer Prize-winner.
At first, the Goodman family seems “normal” enough for a sitcom. They’re having “Just Another Day” until Diana drops slices of white bread and starts making sandwiches on the floor.
Diana is bipolar. As if her hypo-manic phase were a virus, the others catch it. When her episodes intensify, her family hits soaring highs and monster lows. Even their attempts to cope — denial, drug-fog, rage — mirror doctors’ struggles to bring Diana back into “balance.”
Unlike “normal” portrayals of illness – Arthur Kopit’s Wing’s, Margaret Edson’s W;t — where the sufferer’s in the center, Brian Yorkey’s book honors all points of view. The five characters, and the doctors, have their say. From afar, none would stand out: young Natalie’s probably just a shy student; husband Dan’s a straight-laced pop; Diana seems chipper enough. Yet they’re in such solitary confinement they can’t reach far enough to reach out.
Diana’s diagnosis: bipolar depression with delusional episodes, aka, Bipolar II. Treatments escalate from psycho-pharmaceutical stopgaps to ECT, “electro convulsive therapy” (and visions of Tennessee Williams’ lobotomized sister Rose). The musical makes many sudden turns and twists. One of the most striking comes when placated Diana, her “vital days” now seemingly past, sings “I Miss the Mountains.” Now that she’s “stable” — normal? — she can’t feel a thing.
The characters are an odd mix of sketchy, generic types with clusters of epic emotions. Tom Kitt’s music and the SDMT production give them depth. The songs combine often lilting melodies with jagged intensities.
Diana’s lyric sums them up: “you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive” (it comes from my one reservation about the musical: the concluding song, “Finale Light,” is a rousing, “Let the Sunshine In” anthem; but given all the havoc that’s come before, it’s so feel good it makes recovery seem like a foregone conclusion: “finale lite”?).
Bets Malone stars as Diana. You could say Diana’s songs are “bipolar,” they’re so vocally and emotionally extreme. Malone ranges from fierce to fragile with commanding ease. By far some of her best work to date.
Everyone in the cast has the requisite chops, for opera. Lindsay Joan’s Natalie, Robert J. Townsend’s Dan, Eddie Egan’s Gabe (especially when belting “I’m Alive”), Eric Michael Parker’s Henry-the-stoner, and Geno Carr’s Dr. Madden/Mr. Fine do full justice to one tricky, mercurial score.
Credit to director Nick DeGruccio, musical director Don Le Master, and designers Matt Scarpino (set), Matthew Novotny (lighting), Janet Pitcher (costumes) and Bonnie Durban (properties) for making the regional premiere of Next to Normal such a success.