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Next to Normal
City Stage
21 N. Front St.
3/30-4/1, 4/6-8 and 13-15. 8 p.m.
Tickets: $18-$22

“Not a very exact science, is it?” Diana asks her doctor. Her ongoing battle with a mental illness dictates an overwhelming dedication to staying on top of her meds and the changes that often come along with it. A cocktail of drugs—Valium, Xanax, Prozac and insert one or more pharmaceuticals here—come and go as frequently as Diana’s manic phases in City Stage’s latest outstanding production, “Next to Normal.”

The audience is introduced to Diana and her family at the onset of the show, as the bustle of a morning determines their daily routines: Dan gets dressed for work, Natalie prepares for school and Diana makes sandwiches. On this morning, however, the mother is sitting on the floor with bread and meat sprawled about—lots and lots of it. When addressed, she responds quite simply, “I wanted to get ahead on lunches.”

The pace is set immediately and continues balancing in perfect synchronicity throughout the two-hour show—a juggling act that must go on in order for the family to maintain a modicum of sanity in dealing with a loved one who suffers from bipolar disorder. And isn’t it true to life? Humor often comes in the face of horror. “Next to Normal” delivers both in spades, and thank goodness, as the audience doesn’t feel bogged down by the heavy undercurrent carrying the play. They laugh at the scenarios which come of it—i.e. Diana’s hallucination of seeing her doctor as a rock star—and they cry when the bottom drops, such as the overshadowing of Diana’s daughter by a son who hadn’t a real chance at existence.

Diana is played by the wonderful Katherine Vernon. Without a doubt this is one of her most gripping performances. Vernon carries the emotional plot line in its twists and turns, and fleshes out Diana with every emotion necessary in riding the many waves of this illness. She plays despondent at all the right times and acts out in impetuous highs during manic episodes, fervently cleaning house top to bottom and talking a hundred words a minute. She brings unabashed verve in every interaction—even in non-action. Watching her attempt to make sense of her ticking mind is as frustrating for viewers to understand, yet not without a sympathetic—or for some empathetic—open heart. Her forlorn expressions get punctuated by vacant eyes during silence, but are frantic in dismay when she showcases her powerhouse vocals (“I Miss the Mountains,” “You Don’t Know”). She brings a different approach to her normal style of singing, too. Rather than carrying through many notes with elongated syllables and measures, often she works the song in staccatic scream-sing fashion. It’s perfect. She holds back appropriately and equally lets loose as the script beckons.

Haunted by her dead son, Gabe, Max Korn is a dream, quite literally, in this role. Coming out of a powerful performance last month in City Stage’s “Spring Awakening,” he has proven masterful in owning tumultuous material. As Gabe he remains out of reach and distant for everyone except Diana. Though dying to connect with a family who lost him, after having passed when just a baby, Diana’s soul is the only to acknowledge this unmistakable void. Her “hallucination” of Gabe showcases a mother unable, unwilling to move on with her current family, and Korn appeals to that by giving Gabe a punch of desperation. He mandates securing all of her attention, and he’s lovely in convincing Diana of his existence (“I’m Alive”)—never is it in malice, only harrowing sorrow. A handsome, perfect son, Korn is compelling in the child act, “convincing” Diana she doesn’t need her meds and pitting himself against his alive sister who gets the brunt end of the parental stick. He’s forceful in his maneuvers across the stage, too, often jumping in Spideman-like agility to appear in Diana’s view.

Taylor Hamlet as daughter Natalie is a knock-out in the show; in fact, she steals it with ease. Hamlet is brilliant, from her looks—glasses, skinny jeans tucked in ankle boots, an oxford and vest—down to life choices, which include lots of Red Bull to maintain dedication to her school work. She’s typical in an over-achieving fashion, as she pushes herself in hopes of getting noticed by her parents, often whom are too consumed by the effects of Diana’s illness.

Hamlet has an amazing voice for such a youngster, mature and clean in its procurement. She takes the blow of her mother’s condition with misplaced affection. The audience feels for this child who is beclouded so completely, having piano recitals and school dances ruined because Mom had a mental breakdown. The family dynamic is predictable, here: Mom numbs away the pain with pharmaceuticals, why shouldn’t Natalie? As Hamlet bumbles into party child and lashes out as only a teen sometimes knows how to do, it’s symbolic of a very real concern in society today. When we push drugs to fix everything, won’t our children also think it can “fix” them?

The ensemble performance of “Who’s Crazy”/“My Psychopharmacologist and I” is the show-stopper of the evening. It deals with every single emotion and outcome for a patient undergoing treatment and the impact it can have. Diana’s husband, Dan, sings: “And she was wicked and wired/The sex was simply inspired/Now there’s no sex, she’s depressed/And me, I’m just tired, tired, tired, tired/Who’s crazy/The one who’s uncured.” Bryan Putnam as the stand-up partner tries so hard to do right by his wife. His adoration and care is there still, even 20 years after they fell in love—a time when Diana was alive. “Now, I just wish she could drive,” he states. It’s amazing to watch Putnam naturally fall into this role. Every motion he endures is with fragile care. He walks the fine line of someone numbed by pain and trying to keep the house (an impressive skeletal set, zig-zag in structure, befitting the show’s content) he built with love and care functioning on some level. His eyes are heart-breaking in agony and his voice carries with it layers of discouragement and nostalgia for the woman Diana once was. He’s holding on by a thread; everyone knows it will shred at some point.
Patrick Basquill as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend, is so perfect as the foil to her family’s hard-knocks. He’s upbeat, supportive, unconditionally loving and her only shot at normalcy. Their dynamic really helps set up many scenes of importance in order to see the family’s woes. Likewise, Basquill and Hamlet’s love is full of butterflies at the get-go; it’s a shining ray of light, which glows even with Diana, as a snippet of her memory flashes back to her first encounter with Dan.

George Domby does a fine job as Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine, the one man in Diana’s life of resounding dependency. He plays a doctor just going through the motions for yet another patient. His altruistic sense of care is arm’s length away, and his “give-it-a-shot” suggestions of treatment are indicative of how boggling mental illness actually is. The brain’s effusive complexities cannot be mastered.
“I don’t feel like myself; I mean, I don’t feel anything,” Diana says.

“Patient stable,” Dr. Fine responds.

The music in “Next to Normal” is so unbelievably dreamy; its score very much includes a fantastical mien, like that often heard from Badly Drawn Boy. And what a show for Chiaki Ito to direct upon this gorgeously talented band, who are appear in ghostly fashion behind a white drop sheet. They play a cascade of sensational rock opera, song flowing into song, one right after the other. That the cast has to pull of this marathon musical, with very little snippets of dialogue, is by far impressive. Tears streamed down my cheek during the music-box number, “I Dreamed a Dance”—a French-sounding coercion of devastating loss. Just stunning!

The only qualm I can find in “Next to Normal” is its ending. A sudden decision made by Diana has no grounding or link to previous thought processes. It seems rather sudden and even unbelievable that she’d choose to deal with her illness the way she does. If the show peppered in this option somewhere before, the build-up of believability would be better suited. Still, it doesn’t harm the tone.

This is the best show City Stage has done in 2012 yet. It has drama, humor and panache. It’s brilliantly written and quite true to its content. I know because my theatre companion had many similar experiences during her own childhood; she was blown away by its true-to-life richness. It’s relevant and deserving of its 2009 Tony Awards and especially the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—only one of eight musicals to ever secure such recognition. “Next to Normal” is ground-breaking theatre, which I hope we see more of from this edgy, daring theatre company.

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