Once Again, the Highs and Lows of 'Next to Normal' are Explored, This Time at Porthouse Theatre 

click to enlarge amy_fritsche_as_diana_and_them_christopher_warren_as_dan.jpg

Photo by Bob Christy

No matter how good a play or a musical is, you're eventually going to see an awful production of it. Every week there is probably an execrable production of Death of a Salesman or My Fair Lady being foisted upon people somewhere in the U.S. Given enough years, the same fate even will be visited upon Hamilton.

Here in the Cleveland area, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal has had a remarkably clean and unsullied run at various theaters. NTN had its first viewing here in 2011 when the touring company visited Playhouse Square. Leading the cast was Alice Ripley, a graduate of Kent State University, who had garnered a Tony Award a couple years earlier for her portrayal of Diana, a woman suffering from bipolar disorder.

Since then, this complex and involving musical has been on a roll in this area. With music by rock musician Tom Kitt and incisive book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the show has been blessed with fine local productions (at least the ones I've seen). Lakeland Theatre, Beck Center and TrueNorth Cultural Arts have all taken a cut at this daunting material and come up smelling like roses.

So as I enjoyed a pre-show picnic on the Porthouse Theatre grounds, it occurred to me that this might be where Normal finally face-plants. Porthouse, a summer venue operated by the College of the Arts at Kent State, occupies an amphitheater on the Blossom Music Center campus where the atmosphere is light-hearted and the usual fare is bright and upbeat (like their first show this season, Anything Goes).

But no worries. This is the 50th anniversary season of Porthouse, the Alice Ripley alumna vibe is in the air, and this version of Next to Normal is another winner. Under the precise direction of Jim Weaver, the cast handles the music with professional aplomb. And the downbeat story of Diana once again grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.

The stage is set beautifully by scenic designer Patrick Ulrich who fashions a surreal and jagged suggestion of a house, representing the turmoil in Diana's mind. This is reinforced by a backdrop of about 500 illuminated dots — brain nodes misfiring? A galaxy of psychotropic pills? — that dance and change color as the play progresses.

As Diana, Amy Fritsche pushes all the right buttons as she lives inside her character's manic depression. Fritsche sings with power and nuance, and she makes several of the memorable songs in this score soar, particularly "I Miss the Mountains," which she sings as she dumps her pills into the toilet, seeking her previous non-medicated highs and lows.

Swinging from wildly exuberant and efficient to non-functional, Diana's tormented life is a wild ride that puts the screws to her family: her husband Dan and her children Natalie and Gabe. That ride is overseen by two doctors, both played with enthusiasm by Jim Bray.

Dan is as sweet and caring as a husband can be, and Thom Christopher Warren embodies this well-meaning but confused man with the right amount of compassion — without making him a wimp. His hope for his wife's recovery or improvement is simply heartbreaking.

Also excellent is the strong-voiced Madelaine Vandenberg, who displays all of teenage Natalie's frustrations, plus her budding interest in a dorkish boy, Henry, who is vying for her affections. Although he doesn't have quite the vocal chops of some of the other actors, Andy Donnelly as Henry makes up for that with a dweeb-ish affect that is thoroughly endearing.

It doesn't really require a spoiler alert to mention that Gabe is present in his family's life mentally and not physically. But he does have a lot of stage time, which isn't always used to maximum effect. As Gabe, Madison Adams Hagler sings with resonance but he's not as intrusive and interruptive a presence as he might be.

That decision by director Weaver may be one of the few wrinkles in this tight, seamless staging. For NTN is a memory play on a couple different levels. On one hand, Diana and her family are trying to sort out their feelings about Gabe, and those memories constantly collide with the life they're living in the moment. For Diana, those recollections are fragmented due to her mental illness.

On the other hand, when Diana is subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), that treatment formerly known as electroshock causes her to lose vast amounts of her memory. Although ECT has a much better track record now than decades ago, the specter of losing one's memory is beyond terrifying.

The genius of Next to Normal is that it handles this subject with such truth and compassion while being outstandingly entertaining. And when the absolutely believable but sad ending happens, this production at Porthouse puts your heart right where it belongs: in your throat.

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