Les Misérables (Revolution), Chicago (Prison), Sweeny Todd (Murder), Oliver (Orphanage), Little Shoppe of Horrors (Man Eating Plant) it seems that no matter how grim the subject matter, it you make it into a musical it takes the sting out of the bleak and makes it a festival of song. So it is with the Beck Center for the Arts production of “Next To Normal” playing in the Studio Theatre.
Here the subject matter is mental illness and the various ‘treatments’ associated with this all too common malady. Diana is suffering from Bi-polar disorder compounded with schizophrenia due to the death of her eight month old baby some eighteen years ago whom she is in constant contact with as an eighteen year old mental apparition. In order to appease and keep her family together (husband, Dan and Daughter, Natalie) she has endured psychoanalysts, drugs by the cart load, cold turkey withdraw of everything and now after a suicide attempt is talked into shock treatment. Pretty grim stuff…ain’t it.
But…put a jazzy soundtrack and some snazzy tunes to it and truthfully, mental illness doesn’t sound half bad, especially when it is happening to someone else’s family. This is one of the strengths of the musical. It makes you realize that no matter how messed up your family seems, it pales by comparison. These guys really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional. Along the way, you meet Diane’s doctors who seem to be practicing medicine until they get it right, Natalie’s boy friend (who is blinded by love and ignores the obvious problems) and the ghost from Christmas past, dead son/brother Gabe.
The set truly lends itself to the production. It is made up of three platforms set at odd slight slants with small sets of steps going up from the sides and back. The set seems to be an allegory to the story as the actors have had to adapt to the dysfunctional angles and entrances of the set just as families adapt to survive when members of the family suffer mental breakdowns and episodes. At odd angles behind the set are windows lined with hundreds of prescription bottles setting the tone of the production.
So how is the musical? It is phenomenal. The songs are sharply written and are the dialog for the production. It is more opera than musical in my eye and ear. In spite of the cast members being at odd places in the set, they are well lit even when put in close proximity to the audience. Each cast member is miked and the sound level is adjusted to be easily heard without being annoying. As always, the band is a star of the show in their own right. The story moves along at a steady pace with a perfectly logical ending and each cast member is a standout singer in their own right. Being as it is in the Studio Theatre, it gives a much more intimate feel to the show as if you are a visitor rather than an audience member. It works well in this smaller space since a larger theater setting would hurt the feeling of closeness.
The only negative I have is with the dead son Gabe (perfectly plaid by Chris McCarrell). About halfway through the second act you really wish that he would just go away, especially when you find out that dad “sees him to”, but that is the entire point of the show. He will not go away and that is why these people are so sick.
This is sharply written almost to the point of being a satire and a scary commentary on the state of our mental health treatment options. If talking does not seem to be helping you cope with your problems then they will try to drug them out of you and failing that will fry them out of you all in the interest of science and a safe community.
I highly recommend seeing this musical. It will give you a different look at the challenges facing a family coping with the mental illness of its members as well as how each member of the family themselves learns to ‘cope’.
Being a small cast, everyone in this show is a true standout. Katherine DeBoer as Diana is perfect. At times she is sweet and at times hell on wheels. She nails the classic symptoms of her diagnoses. She also has a killer singing voice. Scott Plate as the long suffering husband, Dan, brings a quiet strength to the role with a beautiful tenor voice that shakes with emotion. Caroline Murrah as Natalie plays the caught in the middle teen who has enough on her plate with growing up much less dealing with her family. She belts out some real show stoppers. Ellis Dawson as Henry (Natalie’s boy friend) tries hard to keep his head above water as his blind love shades his sight from some very serious issues. While not a soloist, his duets with Natalie and Dan show his versatility. Chris McCarrell is Gabe; the brother who is not there. He is a sort of devil’s advocate haunting the minds of the family members and forcing them to take actions they would not ordinarily consider. Phil Carroll as Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine plays the rolls with the perfect amount of detachment and professional off handedness so often seen in the medical profession.
The standout group of musicians who build an orchestra in the air truly make the show what it is. They are: Nancy Maier (Piano/Conductor), Dylan Hayden (Drums/Percussion), Kevin Johnson and David Maxxson (Guitar), Kevin Aylward (Bass), Amanda Stenroos and Allison Lint (Violin) and Dan Hind (Cello).
This show is a cooperative effort between Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University and showcases the talents of both organizations. Since this is surely going to be a sold out run, I would suggest getting your tickets right now so you so not miss this show.
To purchase tickets you can call 216-521-2540 or go to http://sa1.seatadvisor.com/sabo/servlets/EventSearch?presenter=BECKCENTER