That most American of theater forms, the musical, turns serious and penetrating and haunting in Next to Normal, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. With an exquisite rock-driven score by Tom Kitt and gripping drama from playwright-lyricist Brian Yorkey, the piece about a woman’s bipolar disorder and its devastating effects on her family is extraordinarily powerful theater.
Coral Gables-based Actors’ Playhouse was the first South Florida company to present the show, winning widespread acclaim for its 2012 production. Now Boca Raton’s Slow Burn Theatre, which is expanding its reach via a partnership with the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, is offering up its version of Next to Normal. Utilizing local actors, musicians and designers, director Patrick Fitzwater easily proves a point he makes at the top of the show: The talent here impressively meets the challenges of this demanding musical.
Next to Normal revolves around Diana (Sharyn Peoples), a wife and mother whose mental state has swung from manic to depressive throughout most of her marriage. Her husband Dan (Matthew Korinko) is steady and supportive, clinging to a semblance of normalcy that never lasts for long. Their bright, overachieving daughter Natalie (Anne Chamberlain) copes with a teenager’s predictable emotional upheavals and the certainty that her mother’s illness is an impermeable wall between them. Yet there are no walls, for better or worse, between Diana and her son Gabe (Bruno Vida), who represents his mother’s aching heart, psyche and soul.
On the periphery of this dysfunctional family unit are Henry (Jason Edelstein), Natalie’s smitten classmate and a guy made of the same empathetic stuff as Dan, and a pair of psychiatrists (Clay Cartland plays both) who, in trying to help Diana, drain her of emotion and memory.
Kitt’s score, played beautifully by musical director Manny Schvartzman and five musicians, integrates multiple musical styles, including driving rock on Natalie’s angry Superboy and the Invisible Girl and Gabe’s defiant I’m Alive, a tender waltz for Diana and Gabe on I Dreamed a Dance, Diana’s folk-tinged lament on I Miss the Mountains. The voices of the six actors blend with power, clarity and, at times, a loveliness that shatters, as when Dan, Diana and Natalie sing Song of Forgetting.
Set designer Sean McClelland gives the family the white bones of a suburban home, appropriate for a haunted woman, and lighting designer Lance Blank underscores emotional shifts with color. Rick Peña emphasizes the family’s ordinariness, Diana’s flattened emotional state and the links between Dan and Henry via his costume design. And sound designer Rich Szczublewski supplies the vital clarity that allows Yorkey’s story to land so devastatingly.
That couldn’t happen, of course, without the cast’s powerful performances. The singer-actors are assured and heartbreaking, Peoples and Korinko capturing Diana and Dan’s bond and their suffering, Chamberlain and Edelstein conveying teens roller-coaster emotions, Vida making Gabe both tender and chilling, and Cartland finding the humor and matter-of-fact frightening qualities in the shrinks.
Next to Normal plays Slow Burn’s home base at the West Boca Performing Arts Theater until Nov. 2, then becomes the troupe’s first production to play the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center Nov. 7-10. The buzz surrounding the company has built steadily through its first four years. See Next to Normal and you’ll understand why.