What is the cost for a normal life? Forgetting sorrows? Avoiding emotional risk? Quashing spirited personality traits to shore up more conforming tendencies?
Is normalcy even achievable? Desirable?
In “Next to Normal,” creative team Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) examine these concerns and others in a clever, funny, devastating, but ultimately empathetic story of a suburban mother suffering from bipolar disorder — and the family who suffers with her. It’s a finely constructed vehicle of a play that confronts identifiable yet challenging characters with the complex world of mental health issues, frustration with medical practice, on-going stressors, and navigating grief.
Musical Theater Heritage presented the Pulitzer Prize- and three time Tony Award-winning musical in the company’s signature concertized style, directed by Sarah Crawford. A powerful cast and effective staging gave maximum performance with minimal frills during Saturday evening’s show at the theater in Crown Center. Jeremy Watson conducted the orchestra.
Ashley Pankow, as Diana, gave a clear-eyed interpretation of a woman locked in a delusion preferable to her reality, her shifts between highs and lows subtly indicated, her hurt and confusion and desperation palpable, humanized yet humorous.
Ben Gulley played her steadfast husband, Dan, in an emotional performance, wrenching in his devotion and mask of positivity, confusing his sacrifices with his own fear and loss.
Paris Naster was their overlooked and overstressed daughter Natalie, locked in her own spiral of pain and loneliness. Daniel Verschelden’s Henry had a Jon Cryer-as-Duckie quality to his earnest teenage devotion, offering hidden wisdom and valuable support in a charming package.
Robert Hingula played Diana’s various doctors, representing both the assuredness and the disconnect of the medical community, with skewed reliance on experts in an unreliable field.
Woven through it all is the character Gabe, played by Corbin Williams with an enticing, seductive quality as an impossible ideal.
While the ensemble was strong vocally, the true power of the show was in the intimate moments, especially duets. Lyrics were easier to decipher, too, not lost between mike changes or under the band.
Lighting design by Kylor Green offered mood to the sparse set design and clarity to the efficiently paced show, the swift scene changes further enhanced by the onstage costume change.
The play ends with an uplifting message, but, thankfully, veers away from a succinct and saccharine conclusion. It is an on-going battle to live with mental health problems, but a battle worth fighting for the ones you love.
Musical Theater Heritage’s production of “Next to Normal” continues through Aug. 21 on the third floor of Crown Center. See MusicalTheaterHeritage.com.