‘Next to Normal’: Emotional roller coaster, worth the ride

One of contemporary theater’s most powerful rock musicals, “Next to Normal,” concerns a family dealing with the mother’s bipolar disorder. And you have the opportunity now to see this Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner in a strong production on Riverside Theatre’s intimate Waxlax Stage.

As the show begins, everything seems in order in a loving family. It’s early morning when the whole day, like their future, lies before them. Mother chastises her son for getting in late the night before. Father and mother hint at an affectionate interlude. Daughter buzzes in, stressed over school. The mother is the domestic goddess holding it all together, singing in “Just Another Day” that “we’re the perfect, loving family; so adoring.”

The only thing missing is a white picket fence.

But this home’s order is furiously sought and desperately obeyed. One step outside the lines might lead to chaos. Hinting at the impending emotional anarchy is a loaf of bread, quickly turning into a vehicle for a manic episode.

Mental illness is certainly an unusual subject matter for a musical. But the groundbreaking work of lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt tackles the subject and delivers a powerful theatrical experience. It brings us viscerally into the lives of this family. We see how the mother’s disorder affects them, while at the same time witnessing abiding love and eventual acceptance.

There is Dan, the father, who deeply loves his family and is thoroughly dedicated to them. Hoping his wife Diana will improve, he rides the emotional roller coaster up to those highs of delusion-inducing positivity, singing “It’s Gonna be Good!” He then plummets to the lows of the sadness and loss that is his reality.

Natalie, the daughter, has been ignored most of her life because the mother pays more attention to son Gabe, who both torments and comforts the mother. Deepening feelings for her boyfriend, Henry, awaken Natalie’s worries about her own sanity.

Unlike her father though, Natalie is more realistic about what to expect from her mother. She has lived this reality her entire life, while the father knew the mother before anyone perceived the lurking mental illness.

Diana, too, rides the highs and lows, but hers is due to a manic-depressive disorder. It is through her that we get a glimpse into the suffering experienced by a person with this affliction.

Taking an array of pills to control her condition, Diana laments in “I Miss the Mountains” that “everything is balanced here … nothing’s real.”

This is all the stuff of excellent melodrama which, if set among royalty or a higher class, would be considered taut tragedy. You just can’t get away from this show without getting caught up in the music, the story and the characters.

Directed and designed by Allen D. Cornell, the show maintains an order that belies the theme of chaos, in which characters sing “Catch me, I’m falling.”

The wonderful six-piece orchestra, conducted by Ken Clifton, sits high onstage behind a black screen, making them barely visible. They weave recurring musical motifs throughout, heightening the action and emotion. The music is deeply affecting and resonates for days.

The action takes place on stages below, with set pieces efficiently pushed on and off, taking us quickly into a multitude of locations including the kitchen, the basement, a hospital room, a school and more.

Riverside’s production evokes the original show’s signature look. Costume designer Kurt Alger adheres to a color palette of purple, and lighting designer Julie Duro uses a series of lights to pulsate with the music and energize mood.

Keeping step with the driving sound and constant movement, folding from one scene to the next, is the terrific cast, three of them (the father, mother and doctor) with Broadway credits.

As Diana, Judy McLane has a flawless voice that hits every song’s power and urgency.

Clay Singer finds a sweet adolescent spot as Henry, the boyfriend. Patrick Mobley as Gabe (Dan and Diana’s son, who died in infancy) gives beautiful voice and teenage swagger to “I’m Alive.” And P.J. Griffith turns in a strong performance as the two doctors, one rather reserved and the other rather rock-star sexy.

Eric Kunze and Isabella Stansbury turn in winning portrayals of Dan, the father, and Natalie, the daughter. They not only sing beautifully, but they also dig into the souls of their characters and serve up the big emotion often missing from the show’s first act.

We root for Dan when, so bereft, he sings to his wife “I am the one who knows you/ I am the one who cares.”

When Natalie sings “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” we feel her awful sense of neglect in the lyrics: “Superboy and the Invisible Girl; son of steel and daughter of air … she’s not there.”

The duet with Natalie and Diana, “Maybe (Next to Normal),” in which the daughter and mother relate honestly, will wreck you. This is where the show gains emotional steam and delivers the expected gut punch.

But then there’s “So Anyway” with Dan and Diana, so be sure to save some of your tissues for that.

Don’t let these passions keep you away from “Next to Normal.” Indeed, if you have the emotional stamina, you will be rewarded with a most moving and memorable theater experience. Just be sure to bring the tissues. And don’t be embarrassed about wiping the tears away. Everyone will be doing the same thing.

“Next to Normal” runs through Feb. 10 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets are $75. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.

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