There is nothing normal about "Next to Normal"at Columbia's Red Branch Theatre Company. This 2009 Broadway musical is a tuneful consideration of a family that is being ripped apart by the mother's mental illness. It's not the cheerful musical norm, that's for sure.
The rock-oriented score by Tom Kitt energizes the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Anything but shy when it comes to tackling such a sensitive topic, Yorkey even boldly rhymes "sociopath" with "Sylvia Plath," a poet who committed suicide. He also spikes the dialogue with infinitely more expletives than you'll hear in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Thank goodness for their musically lively and frequently humorous take on this subject, because otherwise the pain would be hard to take. What's most striking about this distinctive musical is how astutely it balances the humor and the pathos of the situation. The Red Branch Theatre Company production does a fine job of maintaining that emotional balance.
The main character, Diana (Wendy Baird), certainly has lost her mental balance. This middle-aged woman's emotional ups and downs seemingly prove resistant to countless bottles of pills and just as many therapy sessions. Baird brings a sad focus to this role, as when she mournfully asks, "Do you know what it is to die alive?"
Although the character has wobbly confidence, Baird is confident as she sings numbers including "I Miss the Mountains" and "You Don't Know."
It's inevitable that audience members will engage in armchair psychoanalysis as they try to figure out why Diana is losing touch with reality. You'll find yourself examining even the most seemingly normal domestic scenes for psychological clues. The opening scene in the play, for instance, has Diana still awake in the middle of the night as her teen son, Gabe (Brady Stevens), returns home. For reasons that eventually become clear, their relationship bears watching closely.
The musical's alertness to how its characters suffer and yet also proclaim their determination to embrace life comes across with piercing effectiveness when Gabe sings numbers including "I'm Alive." Stevens' sensitive and intense performance is one of the emotional constants in this production.
Diana seems to have a palpable sense of connection with her son, but her relationship with her husband, Dan (Dean Allen Davis), is more frayed. Dan is an emotionally stable guy who is totally bewildered by his wife's mental meltdown. Although Davis conveys this character's frustration in his dialogue, the actor consistently pushes his singing voice higher than its comfort zone. If Davis brought it down a notch, it'd be easier on the audience ears.
Diana and Dan also have a teen daughter, Natalie (Jennifer W. Culotta), whose nervously intelligent personality is beautifully conveyed by Culotta's performance. This actor has real stage presence, and her clearly phrased singing remains strong throughout the show.
Natalie, who is studying classical piano in high school, is so upset by her dysfunctional family life that she's afraid to bring her new boyfriend, Henry (Noah Mitchel), home to meet her mom. Culotta and Mitchel incisively portray how their already-image-conscious characters are further challenged by that domestic crisis.
Rounding out the cast is Mark Allen, who plays two different doctors treating Diana. It's in the spirit of this show to note that she's more than a single doctor can handle.
"Next to Normal" is broken up into so many short scenes and has so many equally short songs delivered by variously sized ensembles that it's to the credit of director Stephanie Lynn Williams that the action flows pretty smoothly.
Likewise, the band playing off to the side capably handles the show's numerous musical selections. Music director Wil Lewis III is pianist and conductor for a band whose other members are Chris Marino, Dustin Merrell, Allen Bernard Branch, Gordon Green and Jason Barteck. If anything, the band is so enjoyably assertive that it tends to ride on top of the vocals. Diana is unbalanced, but that doesn't warrant such a musical imbalance.
The set design by Don Gibbin relies upon uncluttered platforms that facilitate the many changes in location. Although this set serves that purpose well, it's otherwise rather drab.
Fortunately, this family is anything but drab. They are completely alive expressing their anguish, and it doesn't hurt that they complain to a rock beat.
"Next to Normal" runs through April 22 at Red Branch Theatre Company, 9130 Red Branch Road in Columbia. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $16- $20. Call 410-997-9352 or go to http://www.redbranchtheatre.com
Red Branch Theatre Company is partnering with the Howard County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to host an audience talkback session following the April 15 performance; it will be hosted by Steve Gray, the Howard County chapter's director of Programs and Development. Also, NAMI is holding a fundraiser in conjunction with the April 19 performance.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun