By Pat Launer
Sixteen year-old Natalie Goodman is way past hoping for a normal family. She’ll settle for “Next to Normal.” But she might not even get that.
There’s an unseen monster tearing at the fabric of her family: mental illness. Her mother, Diana, was long ago diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. Her delusions are a doozy.
This may not seem like something to sing about, but “Next to Normal,” the edgy, small-cast rock musical by Tom Kit (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards (it won three, including Best Original Score).
The show came through San Diego on the national tour in 2011, but that was an unsatisfying production, because by that time, the original star, former San Diegan Alice Ripley, who’d won a Tony for her performance, had totally thrashed her voice.
Now, along comes San Diego Musical Theatre to knock it outta the park. Their production is superb, from the cast to the stunning lighting (Matthew Novotny), to the terrific band, under the astute and assured musical direction of Don LeMaster.
One could debate whose story this really is: Diana, with her terrible peaks and valleys (“I Miss the Mountains”), her suicide attempts and her near-complete loss of memory after electroshock therapy? Or her daughter, desperately trying to be seen, always in the shadow of her brother (“Super Boy and the Invisible Girl”? Or is it about Dan, Diana’s beleaguered but ever-faithful husband, a nice guy (named Good-man!) who tries to be there for everyone and somehow winds up failing them all? Truly, it’s a family story, because mental illness is not just one person’s burden.
This show kicks off SDMT’s new fundraising program, You Give, We Give, which will extend through 2015. During each production, 10% of donations will go to a relevant local non-profit. For “Next to Normal,” it’s the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the International Bipolar Foundation. The cast collects money in buckets after the show.
And you will want to give, because the raw anguish of this tale is so marvelously conveyed that you’re totally swept up by these stellar singers and their heart-rending predicament.
Three members of the cast have already performed the show together, under the expert direction of Nick DeGruccio, last year at La Mirada Theatre near Los Angeles. This revisit, a San Diego regional premiere, allows DeGruccio and the actors to dig deeper and sharpen the performances, which are honed to a fine edge.
Bets Malone is magnificent as Diana, capturing all the nuance of confusion, anger, loss, despair and ache. Robert J. Townsend, who’s in splendid voice, displaying robust tone and an impressive range, is solid as no-nonsense architect Dan, steadfast still, but kind of clueless.
Lindsay Joan is amazing as Natalie. She’s actually a 16-year-old high schooler herself, but her maturity and confidence onstage, her powerful voice and presence, are astonishing.
As the Goodman son, Eddie Egan is haunting. Playing an array of shrinks (the play also explores medical ethics), Geno Carr is excellent, and hilarious as one rockin’ psychiatric superstar. As a slacker/doper who grows emotionally in his unflagging, healing love for Natalie, Eric Michael Parker is convincing. But the foreshadowing of their likely later relationship, paralleling the Goodmans’, wafts a cold wind through the final moments of the play, which try to be upbeat, though there’s no guarantee of good times ahead for anyone.
The set (Matt Scarpino), as in the original and touring productions, is the skeleton of a house, perfect for this gnawed-to-the-bones family.
The story, and the songs, are gut-wrenching. You take a painful journey with this clan, and still somehow feel better for it at the end.
Bravo, San Diego Musical Theatre! This is a risky show, and your gamble has paid off, big time.
- The San Diego Musical Theatre production of “Next to Normal” runs through Oct. 12, at the North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave.
- Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Running Time: 2 hrs. 20 min.
- Tickets ($26-$56) are at 858-560-5740 or online at www.sdmt.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.