ORLANDO – Is there anything more normal than, say, watching a mother impatiently waiting up late for the teen-age son who has missed his curfew, then getting up early the next morning, as usual, to take on the challenge of preparing her family for the day ahead?
You might be tempted to see either your own family, or one you know quite well, as you watch Diana Goodman, a suburban mom, interacting with her son Gabe that night, then the next morning with her husband Dan as he gets ready to head off to work, and their teen-age daughter Natalie as she’s about to start another day at school. The familiar routines are all there, instantly recognizable to any of us.
It’s only very slowly that the audience watching the musical drama “Next to Normal” is able to understand that there’s a lot more happening under the surface than it initially appears. The first clue – when Diana stumbles during her morning ritual of making lunch for the family, and the sandwiches tumble onto the floor – could almost be seen as comical. Who hasn’t had one of those hapless mornings when not only does nothing seem to go right, but blunders like that one seem to add insult to injury?
The clue, in fact, isn’t really from Diana’s angry and frustrated reaction to accidentially letting those sandwiches plop onto the floor. It’s the almost grave concern that Dan shows. For a moment, Diana seems almost disoriented. And Dan looks deeply worried … but why? Haven’t all suburban moms had bad mornings when nothing goes right?
As it turns out, the reason Dan looks so worried is that he knows something that the audience will gradually learn: that Diana has suffered from bipolar disorder coupled with hallucinations for the past 16 years, and is on medications. But they no longer seem to be working, so her physician, Doctor Fine, decides it’s time to readjust her meds once again. The only problem, Diana admits, is that while the medications may be controlling those hallucinations, they have a nasty side effect: she doesn’t feel much of anything anymore. Doctor Fine considers that acceptable, and declares that she’s now stable. But is being an emotional zombie the right way to live?
“Next to Normal” is a fascinating and invigorating theatrical piece, in part because it’s almost like taking one of those heavy Ingmar Bergman movies — you know, the ones where Liv Ullman has an emotional breakdown — and turning it into a rock musical. If that sounds like a potentially catastrophic mix, similar to what the Monty Python gang might come up with, then you’d be wrong. The story of how one family struggles and copes with a serious illness, done almost entirely through songs rather than Bergman’s classically angst-driven dialogue, is surprisingly riveting. And while you may not have a lot of talented singers in your own household – certainly not of the caliber that the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre has to offer in its production of this off-Broadway hit – it doesn’t much matter. As the small cast works its way through a rather energetic and emotionally stirring collection of nearly 40 songs, chances are you’re going to see a lot of moments that are easy to relate to, empathize with, and feel deeply moved by.
“Next to Normal” was written by Brian Yorkey, who also drafted the lyrics, with the music composed by Tom Kitt. The saga of one mother’s struggles with bipolar disorder and the impact her illness has on her family made its debut off-Broadway in 2008, when it won the Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Score. It opened on Broadway in April 2009, and was nominated for eleven Tony Awards in 2009, while winning three, including best original score and best orchestration. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, just the eighth musical to receive that honor.
The musical caught the attention of GOAT’s artistic director, Paul Castaneda, and the Orlando production’s lead actress, Leesa Halstead, who was determined to bring the musical to a local stage, where she could play Diana. The play is now being performed at the Goldman Theatre at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando, in a production that employs a live band, minimal set design, and a powerhouse cast.
That last one is the key ingredient here. Great theater is always about the suspension of belief – a small stage can’t recreate “reality” in the same way that a big budget movie can, so theater requires audiences to let go of their concepts of what they need to see to believe something is really happening, and simply allow themselves to flow with the story. The actors in “Next to Normal” bring so much passion and intensity to their work that it’s easy to get caught up in what the Goodman family is going through, even to care deeply about them, regardless of the fact that the cast is singing 90 percent of their lines. This is a fairly intense drama, one that deals with some complex situations, but at all times it still manages to create the feeling that you’re sitting in the living room of your neighbors or family members, and this is something they could be going through. Watching Natalie being courted by her boyfriend at school, or Dan feeling scared and nervous about what Diana’s treatment may be doing to her, or Diana’s struggle to cope with the often cruel side effects of her treatment … it’s all believable, and perfectly easy to relate to.
The cast truly pulls it off beautifully, particularly Jaz Zepatos as the very smart Natalie, who is brilliant at school but as a teen is woefully unprepared for all the emotional turmoil going on at home, and Halstead, who is never less than fully engaging and gripping as Diana. She makes the audience want to root for Diana to stage a comeback, even as the hole she seems to be falling into just looks deeper and deeper.
“Next to Normal” has performances tonight and then on Thursday through Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12. To learn more, log on to Goatgroup.org or call 407-872-8451.
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