What's normal? Who is crazy? Those are some of the questions that are ultimately explored in the rock musical, Next to Normal. Despite the topic, this show is not a downer. The story is about how mental illness affects not just a patient, but the family. Diana Goodwin (Melinda Zupaniotis) is a woman who has suffered from bi-polar and hallucinations for 16 years. Dan (Eli Newsom) married Diana when she found out she was pregnant, but has remained with her through the ups and downs of marriage under the best of circumstances, and her mental illness at its worst. Their daughter Natalie (Arielle Boutin) is the replacement child for their son, Gabe, who died at the age of eight months as the result of a medical misdiagnosis. Natalie has turned into an overachieving teenager who can't wait to get out of her parent's home because of her mother's mental illness and illusions that Gabe is still alive. (Gabe is played as an 18-year-old by Andreas Wyder.) Rounding out the characters are Henry (Marcelo Calderon), Natalie's boyfriend, and Drs. Fine and Madden (both played Tony Leone).
Most of the show is told in song, with an energetic score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's sensitive book and lyrics which delve into the hope, sadness and resignation experienced by Diana and the people around her. There by the grace of G-d go any one of us. Who is normal? Who is crazy? "The one who is gone/Or the one who hangs on?" Which doctor is the right one to treat a patient? The psychopharmacologist who declares the "patient stabilized" when Diana is medicated to the point where she can't feel anything, or the rock star psychiatrist who recommends shock therapy, with its risk of memory loss and its lack of sustained benefit? Would it be better for Diana to do without the pills and embrace the grief she felt years after her son died? Can you really let go of the past? Which is worse? The symptoms or the cure? Diana observes that what doctors call dysfunctional, others call romantic.
Then there are the parallels between Diana and Natalie. Both women have drawn men who will resolutely stand by them, even when each is in a drug-induced haze. When Diana warns her daughter not to use recreational drugs, Natalie retaliates by saying that's rich "coming from Pfizer woman of the Year." But their relationship is not always confrontational. Natalie sings, "I don't need a life that's normal,/ That's way too far away./ But something next to normal would be OK."
There are some other funny lines that don't try to be cute or obviously humorous. After Diana chose not to have her mind deadened by medications, she threw them in the toilet and told her doctor in a composEd Manner, "We have the happiest septic tank on the block." Later she tells him, "People who think they are happy don't really think about it. People who are happy are really stupid." We totally understand Diana when she says she misses the mountains of emotions. It's too bad her psychiatrists don't.
Douglas Frawley's set looks like an urban dollhouse, even though the show takes place in the suburbs. Phill Hill's lighting is stunning and effective. At one point, Dan is wringing out a towel and you are certain you can see blood dripping from it. Combined with Christopher Gensur's sound design and Damon Testani's projection design of the family photos, Diana's experience is not just sung, but shown. Kudos also to Clay Zambo's musical direction. The sound is a tad too loud at times, but that can easily be adjusted.
This production of Next to Normal grabs you by the heart. Christy McIntosh and Gina Lariccia's direction captures the story's poignancy in the exhilarating music. The cast is flawless and plausible, and the intimacy of the Downtown Cabaret Theatre does justice to the show. This production is as good as or better than what you would see on Broadway. Melinda Zupaniotis and Andreas Wyder have exceptional singing voices. She is sympathetic. He is mesmerizing and their chemistry give credibility to Diana's hallucinations of her son, the boy who was everything she wanted him to be. Arielle Boutin was perfect as Natalie, the collateral damage of her mother's mental illness. Marcelo Calderon was believable as the young man who offered her unconditional love as well as recreational drugs. Eli Newsom was simpatico as Dan, the one who had to hold it all together. Tony Leone gave two distinctive performances as the doctors who ultimately could not help Diana. She sings, "I'll take a chance on leaving / It's that or stay and die / I loved you once and though / You love me still I know / It's time for me to fly." And our hearts break for her family because we don't know how she will fare.