Friday, November 09, 2012

'Next to Normal' offers funny, powerful exploration of mental illness

CONWAY — M&D Production is presenting "Next to Normal," a Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical that honestly and openly confronts the effects of mental illness on a family.

"Next to Normal," which opened Thursday, Nov. 8, and is running Thursday through Sunday for the next two weeks at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. centers on the Goodman family. Diana (Holly Reville) isn't much of a mother or wife as she struggles with bi-polar disorder and often loses sense of reality. There's a reveal about half way through the first act that makes Diana's psychosis more clear, but for the sake of this review I'll write around this plot point.

Diana's daughter Natalie (Molly Paven) is largely ignored despite being a stellar student and musician who is graduating from high school early and has a free ride to Yale. She can't get out from behind the shadow of her brother Gabriel (Troy Barboza), who is seen as perfect in the eyes of Diana. This is most poignantly addressed in the bitter song "Superboy and the Invisible Girl."

On songs like "I'm the One" and "There's a World," Gabriel is a negative influence on his mother and an enabler. He very literally is the cause of all her problems, which is something Diana refuses to admit to the detriment of herself and her family. Barboza creates a character who is charming, likable and sympathetic, but who we also begin to dread seeing.

Dan (Eric Andrews) is a husband and father who after 16 years of dealing with his wife's disease is desperate for some sense of normalcy. Andrews plays Dan as the calm center of the family trying to keep things in control, but under the surface you can see that his wife's struggles are taking their toll. He's often in denial as in the song "It's Gonna Be Good."

Paul Allen plays two separate psychiatrists attempting to treat Diana, one of which suggests electric shock therapy. Allen is a solid vocalist, who is good with delivering witty lines, but doesn't seem quite present enough in some scenes. For a psychiatrist, he doesn't really seem to truly be listening when Diana is talking. Perhaps this was an acting choice though.

Allen and Reville do have an amusingly awkward dynamic as Diana often confuses doctorly concern for flirtation. This is funniest in the song "My Psychopharmacologist and I." At one point Reville also visualizes Allen as a "scary rock star."

Diana's behavior drives a deepening wedge between her and Natalie, who eventually turns to drugs to deal with the turmoil of her family life. Paven is strong playing a girl who put all her focus on school as a means to get away for the problems at home, but then her desperation for an escape sends her down the wrong path.

Paven has a nice chemistry with Joe LaFrance as Henry, the sweet slacker who she begins dating. He tries to be there for her, but she's scared to expose him to her family's problems.

Reville has the most challenging role of the show and is quite good. She genuinely brings across Diana's fears and confusion. Reville's performance has a real sense of being lost in Diana's thoughts and emotions. Reville shares several heartbreaking scenes with Andrews, Barboza and Paven. The final reconciliation between mother and daughter on "Maybe (Next to Normal)" is a satisfyingly cathartic moment.

With more than 30 songs, there is more scenes of singing than there are of dialogue. Traditionally, characters burst into songs in musicals because their emotions are so big they can no longer be contained. In this case, all the characters are living with their emotions very close to the surface and thus explode into song quite frequently.

The score, featuring music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, blends traditional musical-style ballads with elements from bluegrass, rock, pop, jazz, punk, classical and metal. The music is enhanced by a live band that plays with vigor. The band includes Rafe Matregrano as music director and on drums, Tracy Gardner on keyboard, Ashley Iwans on violin, Eric Jordan on bass and Nat MacDonald on guitar.

Director Ken Martin has done a fine job balancing the delicate nature of this material. For all the heavy drama of "Next to Normal," it isn't a downer. The show is full of wit and warmth. As the show concludes with the stirring "Light" there's a sense of hope that while things may never be entirely normal, they can be close enough.

For more information or tickets call the box office at 662-7591.

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