Say the words “musical theater” and “mental illness” and what you have would never be mistaken as the combination for a theatrical production.
Unless it would be, as the current Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “next to normal” proves over and over and over again, an incredibly powerful and honest look at a problem facing millions today.
The first look finds Diana Goodman (Kira Lace Hawkins), her husband Dan (David Schlmpf), and their daughter Natalie, (Laura Plyler) getting ready for “Just Another Day.” He is getting dressed, Natalie is getting ready for school and Diana is making sandwiches for their lunch and talking to their son, Gabe (Keaton Eckhoff)..
Normal, right? Until you see the bread is spread out on the kitchen floor and no one sees or hears Gabe except Diana.
A look beneath the surface shows that family especially and friends are affected by Diana’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and this Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award-winning musical drama by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) pulls no punches.
A visit to her physician, Dr. Madden (Riley McFarland), results in an “adjustment” to Diana’s multi-multi-multi pill regimen and, eventually, referral to a psychiatrist, Dr. Fine (also McFarland), and a different treatment method (no pills).
A near-fatal incident leads finally to a recommendation for ECT — electric shock therapy. Diana refuses until Dan, worn down after dealing for 16 years with her increasing depression and hallucinations, convinces her that this is their last chance.
At school practicing for her piano recital, Natalie meets Henry (Mike Cefalo), a fellow student who is attracted to her (“Perfect for You”). Considering her home life, she is more than reluctant to begin any relationship. She pushes him away and, determined to have her own life, begins experimenting with her mother’s pills.
The reality of this libretto is chilling but demands close attention. What makes it very listenable is that practically everything is sung.
Which leads to the major plus here i— the absolutely outstanding cast and orchestra. They work tandem to allow every word to sink in and this is no easy task. Having seen this show twice in New York City, I can state with certainty that this sextet of talented singer/actors holds its own against any in the Big Apple or on tour.
At the center of Diana’s world is the always amazing Kira Lace Hawkins who continues to completely inhabit each and every character she portrays and tops the layered individuals with a voice that is rich and broad and sure and a joy to listen to.
Her incredibly wrenching internal journey is shared in varying degrees by Schlumpf and Plyler, whose strong and soaring voices make the depth of their shifting emotions painfully apparent— anger, resentment, grief, fear, frustration, sorrow and, above all, love are components in their kaleidoscopic interactions.
Stirring the pot from somewhere “beyond,” Eckhoff offers a charismatic call to a world without pain where serenity is the key. He urges his mother to join him.
As Natalie’s lifeline, Cefalo is a typical teen, determined to help but not quite sure just how to go about it.
Representing the medical community, McFarland delivers two sides of treatment — pharmaceutical and psychiatric — with precision (his litany of drugs is
frighteningly hilarious) and appropriately concerned detachment.
The award-winning score is safe and a thing of beauty in the voices of director Scott Michaels’ hand-picked cast. In solos or ensemble pieces, they combine excellent vocal work and touchingly real characterizations.
The same is true of the outstanding instrumentalists in conductor Thomas N. Sterling’s orchestra.
In Michael Higgins’ set design, the angular metal steps, platforms and catwalks that connect the many areas in the two-story set sometimes pose a bit of a sight problem but certainly represent well the twists and turns in the minds of all.
This show is not the average man’s definition of a musical but it is one that doubtless will reach a place in everyone’s mind and heart. And it is one that, especially in this day and age, should be seen.
Like Diana, most would agree that maybe being next to normal is not so bad after all.
NEXT TO NORMAL plays through Sunday in the Wagon Wheel Theatre, 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.