Next to Normal
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
The Pico Playhouse
Extended through October 8
This Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical tackles a subject that many regarded as inimical to the musical format: mental illness and its effect on a family.
Featuring a score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, it opens with the number, “Just Another Day,” in which we’re introduced to mom Diana (Michelle Lane), her husband Dan (Nick Sarando), their son Gabe (Harrison Meloeny) and their 16 year old daughter Natalie (Isa Briones). At first glance, this seems like a normal happy family: Mom hands out paper bag lunches for her brood. But — Diana goes on making sandwiches, compulsively, till they spill onto the floor. We realize that something is off. And we soon learn that Gabe died years ago, and the person we’ve seen is a figment of Diana’s imagination and/or memory.
We also hear about other troubling episodes. Diana’s made alarming and destructive scenes in public places. She ran down the family cat with her car. And there were mysterious fires. Dan tries, through it all, to pretend that everything is fine, though he knows it’s not. And he sends her to Dr. Fine (Randall Miles), who prescribes a new medication after every outbreak, till her medicine cabinet is filled with bottles of pills she hates.
After years of Diana’s bizarre and unsettling behavior, Dan is at his wit’s end, while daughter Natalie feels like a stepchild in her own family because everyone’s focus is always on Diana’s problems, and never on her own. A new boyfriend, Henry (Blaine Miller), offers her some comfort, but she’s leery about taking him home lest mom freak him out. And after Diana corners him and insists he stay for dinner, she announces that it’s Gabe’s birthday, and brings in a birthday cake complete with lighted candles. When Dan reminds her that Gabe has been gone for years, she goes into meltdown, and Natalie flees with Henry.
In an attempt to calm her, Dan tells Diana that he knows what she’s going through, but she responds with a passionate song, “You Don’t Know!” He decides to take her to a new doctor, Dr. Madden (also played by Miles). When Madden tries to talk to her about her problems, she deflects him with satirical jokes. He decides she’s suffering from bi-polar disorder — or is it schizophrenia? — and concludes that the only hope for her is electroshock therapy, which she fears. And the specter of Gabe continues to haunt her, urging her to cling to her illness and fight to protect his existence.
Kitt and Yorkey seem bound and determined to wrest a positive ending from their material, but their efforts are only partially successful, despite multiple endings that attempt to provide a positive spin. Part of the problem seems to be uncertain intentions regarding the character of Gabe. At times he seems merely a figment of Diana’s fevered imagination, while at others he appears an independent malevolent entity, with motives and determination of his own. A last-minute attempt to suggest that Dan is as mentally disturbed as his wife comes too late and too briefly to gain much traction.
The score, however, does have many merits. It’s written with wit, and it always advances the action (Though there are scenes of spoken dialog, the show is essentially “sung-through.”) And it’s performed faithfully and well by the talented ensemble under the direction of Thomas James O’Leary and musical director Taylor Stephenson.
Lane perceptively navigates the complex patterns of Diana’s shifting sanity, while Sarando turns the long-suffering Dan into a touching figure. Briones eloquently sketches Natalie’s emotional torments, and Miller brings considerable charm to her slightly nebishy but faithful beau. Miles performs with authority, but it would help if he more strongly differentiated his two roles. And Meloeny brings intensity and charisma to the specter of Gabe.
Jeff Cason’s atmospheric multilevel set and the lighting design by Matt Richter, Adam Earle and Andrew Schmedake add visual interest.
The Pico Playhouse, 10508 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Extended through October 8; http://www.n2nmusicalla.com/. Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.