STATE COLLEGE - For a family wracked by the mother's longtime mental illness, acting normal may not be an attainable goal, so trying to be "Next To Normal" may be the best they can hope for. And Penn State Centre Stage's "Next To Normal" is the best powerhouse production that any theatergoer can hope for.
The regional premiere of this groundbreaking musical has a 7:30 performance tonight, with 8 p.m. shows tomorrow and Saturday in the Pavilion Theatre, 116 Theatre Building on campus at Penn State University.
Nominated for 11 Tony Awards and winner of three, including Best Score, "Next To Normal" also won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, only the eighth drama to win the coveted award. But setting aside the deserved honors, this rock musical took on and won over critics and the public alike for making the struggle with mental illness an apt theme for a serious-minded musical.
Shown in the Penn State Centre Stage production of?“Next to Normal' are Ariela Morgenstern, left, and Asa Sommers as Diana and Dan.
Shown in the Penn State Centre Stage production of?“Next to Normal' are Christina Kidd, left, and Tommy Hart as Natalie and Henry.
Anyone just reading the blurb describing "Next To Normal" as the saga of a suburban housewife's bipolar struggles and the impact on her family may wonder if this is the stuff an entertaining musical is made of. The answer: "Is it ever!"
And anyone wanting to read the synopsis beforehand to get a summary of the plot is advised not to. Although "Next To Normal" doesn't rely on many twists in the plot, the fullest impact awaits those who don't know much about Diane or her 16-year history of mental illness and hallucinations. What triggered Diane's manic depressive behavior isn't revealed till she bakes a birthday cake - and it is a shuddering revelation.
The cast of six consists of two Actors Equity performers, a member of Penn State's theater faculty, and three theater students, all who give vibrant performances.
The acting by the cast is solid, with each creating a vivid character. Heading the cast is Ariela Morgenstern as Diana, the psychologically unbalanced mother of an ostensibly happy family.
The audience, seated around the Pavilion's three-sided stage, can easily see Diane's eyes, the sometimes dazed or harrowing look, while hearing the agony in her songs ("I Miss Mountains") Asa Sommers, is nigh perfect as Dan, the frazzled husband. His singing and acting are heartfelt as he sees his wife descend closer to the snake pit.
A member of PSU musical theater voice faculty, Raymond Sage is strong in a dual role as Diana's two shrinks, and the scene in which Diana fantasizes about him being a rock star, gets one of the play's few hearty laughs.
Gregory Lamontagne excels as Diana's free spirited, teenage son Gabe. It is Gabe's relationship with his mother that is pivotal in the storyline.
As Natalie, the over-achieving but vulnerable daughter, Christina Kidd, turns to drugs and partying to cope with her mother's bouts. Helping to support Natalie, is Henry, a lovable friend and stoner played by Tommy Hart.
Cary Libkin, director of Centre Stage's production, acknowledged in a pre-show release that he had never seen "Next To Normal," yet he brings together the talented cast and forges a show that is throughly emotionally draining.
In the program, Libkin notes that having severe mental illness as subject matter may seem depressing or despairing. But "the fact is it celebrates the human spirit; it celebrates the power of familial love; it celebrates the refusal to give up."
Beth Burrier, music director, perches the orchestra behind panels up stage to deliver the galvanizing rock score by lyricist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt. (There were a few instances on opening night when the drums and guitars almost drowned out the full-voiced singing).
Centre Stage's usual strong tech support is evident in the staging (primarily the family home and the doctors' offices) with effective lighting patterns and upstage screens. The ushers alert the incoming audience that the show contains "mature language and use of strobe lights."
The score is marvelous with each song moving the tortured tale along, making not only Diane and her family, but also the audience realize that it's not only her brain that is hurting, but also her soul.
At intermission, someone seated close to me said that "This is the saddest show I've ever seen." And for the audience, it is true there are far more tears than laughs. But following the standing ovation at the end, the same woman also stated, "This was one of the best shows I've ever seen."
Although there is no happy ending and no surefire recovery for Diane, there is a strong sense of resilience. As the lyrics from one of the songs asks, "Who is crazy? One who tries to cope or one who still continues to hope? The answer is in Penn State Centre Stage's riveting and heart wrenching production. It is absolutely captivating. You would be "crazy" to miss it!
For tickets, call 814-863-0255 or 800-ARTS-TIX, or visit www.theatre.psu.edu.