By Dale King
Leave it to students in the master of fine arts program at Florida Atlantic University to wrap up their first season — one that featured some shockingly emotional, nerve-twisting, heart-wrenching productions — with a shockingly emotional, mentally twisted finale.
The show, Next to Normal, is a frank portrayal of a family in psychological crisis. The tale of multiple woes, told in pop/rock musical fashion, is intriguing, a production that holds the audience’s attention as tautly as mental illness holds onto Diana (Indya Jackson), the family matriarch whose affliction dominates the action.
As the tortured Diana, Jackson truly stands out, both vocally and dramatically. She and the six classmates in the cast all display exceptional acting abilities and each has a specific vocal specialty — from the wispy tenor notes of Ryan Page, who plays her devoted husband, Dan, to the deep tones of Brian Cox, who portrays Dr. Madden, one of Diana’s physicians.
Overall, the show takes the audience on an intense journey that plumbs the depths of mental anguish and its impact on an average American family while also offering a vision of hope that seems to rise from a murky morass as the show concludes.
The show itself has evolved from three prior incarnations into a single, revised entity that has won several Tony and Drama Desk awards. Next to Normal — based on a book by Brian Yorkey, with lyrics by Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt — confronts the issue of mental illness head-on. Diana suffers from a severe case of bipolar disorder and hallucinogenic episodes as a result of a past trauma, a jarring event revealed halfway through the first act, but which continues to impact the cast through the rest of the performance.
This portrayal of a manic-depressive mother who returns from a stint of rehab in hopes of resuming her life with the family she loves is not a feel-good show. Rather, it’s a feel-everything musical which asks you, the audience, with operatic bluster, to discover the freedom that comes from knowing where the next hurt is likely to hit.
“At times, we need ‘happily ever after,’ but audiences have also hungered for a more realistic approach and a musical score that reflects the subject matter,” says director Lynn McNutt.
That wish comes true in Next to Normal which features elegant, but offbeat songs. “Who’s Crazy? / My Psychopharmacologist and I,” sung by Dan, Dr. Fine (Martyna Reczka) and Diana, is the manic woman’s whimsical anthem to drug treatments. “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” acutely pinpoints the unhappiness felt by Diana’s daughter, Natalie (Alexandria Thomas) about having to compete unfairly with a brother, Gabe (Christian Mouisset) who seemingly can do nothing wrong. The stunning ballad, “I Miss the Mountains,” which expresses Diana’s longing to experience again the feelings she had before drugs encapsulated her in a life of sedation.
There are hints of humor, but more frequent moments of a woman forced to endure mind-numbing therapy and mind-altering medications keep laughter, if any, to a minimum. Diana does offer a nod to Sound of Music when, as she recites her list of medications, she sings: “These are a few of my favorite pills.”
Still, the scene of Diana undergoing electroshock treatment is particularly unnerving. Making it worse, Diana is standing next to the bed she is lying in as it is whirled around by a couple of disfigured orderlies while blasts of electricity strobe the room. She and Natalie sing “Wish I Were Here,” which might make a funny bit if it were not so insane.
Immediately after, Dan, Diana and Natalie come together for “Song of Forgetting,” another repeated theme. In fact, much of Act II is devoted to the family helping Diana restore her memory that’s virtually eradicated by electroshocks. Dan feels reliving the aforementioned trauma may be too much for her to handle. Natalie and boyfriend Henry (Jesse Veliz) are less committal.
Next to Normal threatens to conclude tragically, but McNutt describes it as “an ending that remains positive, but [is] not sugarcoated.” This, she notes, “can be more satisfying.”
Jackson’s portrayal of Diana is as fine a piece of theater as theater gets. As Diana’s husband, Page presents an appropriately bland persona in the first act, and then slowly reveals the emotional damage he has also suffered. The reprise of “I Am the One,” sung between Dan and Gabe towards the end, is perhaps the most wrenching in the entire production.
As Gabe, Mouisset is passionate, though somewhat displaced. He is much like the scenery designed so well by Michael McClain — well-structured, but transparent and not quite complete.
The show’s excellent vocals get a musical boost from a fine sextet led by Carbonell-winner Caryl Fantel as conductor and pianist, Liuba Ohrimenco on violin and second keyboard, Greg Minnick on guitar, Elena Alamilla on cello, Rupert Ziawinski on bass and Tim Kuchta on drums and percussion.
Next to Normal will be presented at 2 and 7 p.m. today and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Studio One Theatre on FAU’s Boca Raton campus. For tickets, visit the FAU Box Office inside the Student Union (Building UN 31) or call 561-297-6124.