It isn't often we are able to witness a work of performance art embedded in a stunning art installation. But such is the case in the very satisfying production of Next to Normal, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre.
The gorgeous and fascinating set looks like a lighting fixture store as imagined by a hyperactive six-year-old. Different styles of lamps sit on the stage and are suspended from above amidst a welter of slashing cables and threads that dice the black space into jagged shards.
This imagery perfectly suits the story being told, of a suburban mom, Diana, beset by bipolar disease and hallucinations. She is trying to cope while her husband Dan desperately labors to hold their family together.
On top of all that, this is a musically inventive show with lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt. It is unlikely you have heard any of these tunes—no songs made it to the Top 40. But the songs dovetail with the story so smoothly that the audience is swept along on this tale of torment, loss and an eventual true-to-life resolution.
As Diana struggles to maintain her hold on reality, along with Dan and her two teen children, rivets start to pop under the pressure. She dissolves into a mania of sandwich prep for school and later presents a birthday cake for her son who, it turns out, is merely one of her apparitions.
Mental health professionals—well-intentioned, bumbling and otherwise—are represented throughout as they try to help Diana with her demons. But initially, they mostly succeed in prescribing a galaxy of pills that depress her highs, those soaring moments that Diana remembers fondly in "I Miss the Mountains."
Meanwhile, Dan is questioning his own sanity, waiting hopefully for a turn in his wife's condition. And daughter Natalie, an over-achiever in school, grows further and further from both her parents, taking solace in a relationship with Henry (an enormously affecting Pat Miller), a funny and caring stoner at school.
In Act Two, the decline for everyone continues. As Diana confronts the memory-thrashing side effects of electroconvulsive therapy, Natalie starts wading into the drug world and Dan becomes even more stressed out.
If this doesn't sound like a laugh riot of a musical, you're right. But there is plenty of dark humor and the singing voices, under the musical direction of Jordan Cooper, are outstanding.
Emma Wahl conveys every inch of Natalie's adolescent misery, living in a far from normal household where she feels invisible. And she acts her songs with fine specificity while avoiding stereotypical teen angst-y poses.
As Dan, Rick McGuigan is in splendid voice and his earnest attempts to help Diana are touching. Timothy J. Allen also has some nice moments as the different docs who jolt and drug Diana into various kinds of stupors.
In the difficult role of Brother (whose name we eventually learn is Gabe), Ben Donahoo sings sweetly. But he never finds the edge that should make this intrusive character as agitating as he is omnipresent.
Amiee Collier brings her sterling vocal chops and enormous energy to the role of Diana, investing her songs (such as the delicate "I Dreamed a Dance" and the up-tempo "Didn't I See this Movie?") with startling clarity.
But Collier puts most of her emotion into her singing and opts for less daring choices as she crafts the persona of Diana. As a result, we don't quite see Diana's fraught journey etched into Collier's face as the show progresses. That minimizes the impact of the decision Diana makes at the end.
Director Martin Friedman and scenic/lighting designer Trad A Burns, who are frequent collaborators, knock the theatrical stuffing out of this staging. And even while there are some acting details that land with a small thud, this visually arresting show still captivates and haunts in memorable ways.
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