Ignite's production of Next to Normal is a triumphant step
Diana seems like a typical middle-class wife and mother: smart, energetic and ironic, waking her sleepy son and teasing her daughter. That is, until she begins making sandwiches for everyone's lunch — a maneuver that involves tossing dozens of slices of bread onto the floor, then sinking down and dabbing at them ineffectually with a peanut-butter-smeared knife. It's then that we discover that Diana suffers from bipolar disorder, that the adult son she sees and talks to is in fact her memory of a child who died at eight months, and that the scattered sandwiches signal the onset of another acute episode. The imaginary son promptly vanishes. Daughter Natalie escapes to a practice room at her high school, where she works obsessively on a Mozart sonata. And husband Dan escorts Diana to the first of two therapists we'll encounter during the course of this unusual musical.
The first act of Next to Normal is intriguing. The characters are well delineated, and Tom Kitts's music is profoundly expressive. "I'm Alive," roars dead son Gabe, and almost all of the protagonists harmonize in the touching "Catch Me, I'm Falling." The action eloquently reveals the effects of one member's illness on an entire family, the way delusions ripple outward until everyone's sanity is threatened. Yet there are also flashes of self-awareness and rueful humor. Medications are dispensed and prove useless; electroshock therapy is proposed.
But as Diana spirals deeper into darkness, the limitations of the musical — an inexplicable Pulitzer winner — become increasingly apparent. All humor leaks from Brian Yorkey's script. Plot points and character quirks that enlivened act one get subsumed in a wash of generalized anguish. I guess we're to understand that when Natalie messed up her Mozart at an audition and began improvising, it signaled the beginning of her own descent into madness — because all she does in act two is filch her mother's drugs and torment her sweet, goofy boyfriend, Henry. But Natalie the musician was far more interesting than Natalie the monomaniacal crazed teen, and there had been at least a hint earlier that the improvisation might be freeing and fruitful rather than destructive.
And on it goes. Poor old Dan keeps being stoic and sad, and you can't help thinking a man this kind and considerate could surely do better than hostile, self-absorbed Diana. And Diana just gets sicker and nastier, more and more obsessed with Gabe and less and less interested in the flesh-and-blood people who love her. Gabe — the angriest and most manipulative of angry ghosts — demands his place at the family table loudly and insistently, and soon it feels as if the entire stage is awash in shrieking sound. Which does convey the torment of those plagued by mental illness, but this isn't a place most of us want to inhabit for long.
Ignite Theatre came into existence a year ago, under the umbrella of Lucent Performing Arts; it evolved out of a bare-bones group called Gravity Defied Theatre, which was founded in 2008. Ignite's production history is mixed: Last spring's The Great American Trailer Park Musical was fun but amateurish, and while the company scored a coup in August with the regional premiere of Spring Awakening, the performances were uneven and the tech ragged. But with Next to Normal, Ignite has pulled off an excellent production. There's a little problem with musical balance at the beginning, when the six-person orchestra tends to drown the singers, but otherwise, music director Jason Tyler Vaughn does justice to a complex score. Director Keith Rabin Jr. has found a cast capable of dealing with what I suspect are fiendishly difficult songs. Margie Lamb has to carry the evening as Diana, and her vocal skills are well up to all the changes in pitch, key and tone. Though the script is somewhat critical of the psychiatric profession, David W. Kincannon plays both doctors with gravity and concern, exhibiting a more-than-pleasant voice in the process. Zach Stailey is a little muted as Dan, but that's refreshing given all the high-octane emotion surrounding him, and he brings a fine tenor to his moving numbers. Alejandro Roldan is sweet as stoner Henry. The two riveting talents on stage are Madison Kitchen, who has a shining soprano and makes Natalie sort of gawky and sort of lovely all at the same time, and Casey Andree as a charismatic Gabe.
The plot of Next to Normal isn't half as moving as it wants to be, but the production itself represents a triumphant step forward for this ambitious company.
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