Updated: Jun 20, 2020
There’s something triumphant in musical theatre happening right now... In an intimate teatro in Costa Mesa, a powerhouse of a musical envelops its audience in a production whose performances rival, if not exceed, all others before.
“Next to Normal,” currently showing at Costa Mesa Playhouse, is a superb American rock musical that centers around a wife and mother who struggles with worsening bouts of a manic depressive illness called Bipolar Disorder and the effects that her illness has on her family.
But no other show makes such a direct grab for the heart, or wrings it as thoroughly, as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, mind-blowing musical, which is now in its final week of play, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives. With subject matter rendered achingly recognizable by Brian Yorkey, and a dynamic, energetic pop-rock score by Tom Kitt (“American Idiot” Drama Desk Award), “Next to Normal” enables a small group of actors to showcase powerhouse vocals while exploring pressing contemporary issues, ethics in modern psychiatry and the underbelly of family relationships. There within the music, is a mind on the edge.
Back in 1998, Kitt and Yorkey first premiered the show as a 10-minute workshop sketch called “Feeling Electric,” with the show continuing to be tweaked, replacing songs, dialogue and action. Ten years later, it was produced under the name “Next to Normal,” and found its way on Broadway, winning three 2009 Tony Awards: Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Leading Actress in a Musical, becoming one of only 8 musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The show has quite a controversial theme – it assesses the losses that occur when wounded people are anesthetized, and not just by the battery of pharmaceutical and medical treatments to which Diana is subjected, but by recreational drugs, alcohol and that good old American virtue, denial with a smile. Such emotional rigor is a point of honor for “Next to Normal,” sensitively directed by Jason Holland and featuring an astounding central performance from Elizabeth A. Bouton as Diana Goodman, a housewife diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Traumatized by the death of her infant son Gabe from an undetected intestinal obstruction, Diana has lived with depression and delusional episodes for the past seventeen years. The illness has affected everyone in her life, and has nearly torn her family apart on several occasions.
Labeled as one of the best musicals of the 21st century with its surging tidal score, much of the story is told through powerful and affecting numbers such as, “I Miss The Mountains,” “I Am The One,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” and “I’m Alive.” The melodies are often interwoven, and the action moves back and forth among simultaneous scenes, as well as between literal reality and hallucinatory. Ms. Bouton is spell-binding in “Just Another Day,” when she makes an absurd amount of sandwiches in order to "get ahead on lunches," and later during “It's Going to Be Good,” when she goes off her medication. The song, “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” is Diana walking through her drug therapies in an amusing sketch with Dr. Fine (Garrett Chandler) as he adjusts medications to ultimately stabilize her.
Notable for its honest and rare portrayal of mental illness, something that is still not incredibly common in today’s society, the show does not shy away from looking deep into Diana’s emotional state and addressing the controversial subjects of suicide, over-medication and biological shock therapy, or Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), in which seizures are intentionally induced by sending an electric current through the brain.
Diana is finally convinced to undergo ECT after she cuts her wrists in a failed suicide attempt, prompted by an hallucination of Gabe as a teenager wanting her to kill herself in order to be with him (“I Dreamed a Dance”/”There’s a World”). This form of treatment is also often accompanied by side effects ranging from drowsiness to sexual dysfunction, which are all seen at many points throughout the show. Diana’s sessions with Dr. Madden, her psychologist (also characterized by the amazing Garrett Chandler), is her attempt to manage her manic and depressive symptoms where she talks through her struggle to cope with her loss of Gabe and memory.
In the second half, the writing becomes complex, emotionally intuitive, and heartbreaking. The show develops a much more consistent tone, with fewer attempts at humor. The number "How Could I Ever Forget?" was absolutely stirring, enhanced by the demonstratively poignant performances of both Diana and Dan during this part of the show.
After receiving the ECT treatment, Diana's memory is erratic, and her family struggles to stay patient with her as she puts the pieces of her memory back together. Eventually, those memories are triggered and she faces the fact that her son had indeed died when he was a baby, while also realizing how much she has neglected Natalie. As she reconciles with her daughter, she also realizes she has to leave her husband, Dan, in order to come to grips with her past and her memories on her own terms.
The cast, one of the strongest at this theatre, are all true professionals in every sense. As the troubled Diana, Ms. Bouton reaffirms her status as one of the finest singing actresses around ("The Great American Trailer Park Musical"/"Sweeney Todd"), giving a performance that crackles with humor at times, but sizzles in fire and soul-shaking honesty throughout.
The role of Diana's husband Dan, played by Marc Montminy (also "Sweeney Todd"/"Nunsense"/"Addams Family"), is brilliantly understated throughout the first half of the show, making the build-up to the play's final smoldering climax all the more harrowing. Dan tries to keep his household together the best he can, but in reality he realizes that he has little control over his destiny. Protective and caring for the most part, he also shows much passive-aggressive behavior.
Hovering over the action is Hunter Berecochea, who portrays Gabe with haunting rock star looks, a powerhouse voice that seemed pitch-perfect and chilling believability. The stellar Garrett Chandler also brings real humanity to the drama as the likable but too easy-to-hate physicians in Diana's life. Chandler was last seen at the Costa Mesa Playhouse as Richard in “The Lion in Winter” and in “Bonnie & Clyde.” Natalie (Leianna Weaver) is Diana and Dan’s daughter, and Gabe’s sister. She is a teenage girl basically just trying to find herself. But dealing with her mother’s mental illness, she is on an emotional rollercoaster and doesn’t know how to get off. Her relationship with her father is ambiguous, and, as evidenced in the song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” she is jealous of her brother’s central position in her parents’ emotional life, and in her mother’s psyche.
Henry (Trevor Coran) is charming as a classmate who loves Natalie, and is a stoner, but not showy or obnoxious about it; he is very much a free spirit. Although he seems to have his priorities a bit confused, he is quite the romantic person, imploring to Natalie throughout the show, “Perfect for you, I could be perfect for you . . . I’ll make myself perfect, perfect for you.”
Special praise is due to sound designer John McQuay, who achieves an amazingly comprehensive balance between musicians and singers, while Music Director Stephen Hulsey provides perfect support with the six piece string & rock combo. It is unique to hear lyrics clearly in a rock score, and these musicians deserve special credit for making this happen.
Michael Serna’s set design, with staggered levels for sidebar mini-scenes, and recessed wrap-around lighting on the borders, is fascinating, and helps spotlight the action taking place. Lighting Designer Ryan Linhardt deserves much applause for attention to detail, as do all technical support. And finally, Jason Holland’s staging is imaginative, yet simple, and makes the sometimes challenging flow of action (switching between the conscious and subconscious) crystal clear, and the subtlest dramatic moments come through with unfailing emotional impact.
“Next to Normal” will be playing through September 16th with the final performance in a Sunday 2pm matinee. This show is highly, highly recommended! But bring a box of tissue. Tickets are still available @ http://costamesaplayhouse.com/im_pages/tickets.htm