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A revival of path-breaking musical 'Next to Normal' takes Center Stage

Ariela Morgenstern (in blue) and the rest of the cast of "Next to Normal" at Center Stage.
Ariela Morgenstern (in blue) and the rest of the cast of "Next to Normal" at Center Stage.(Richard Anderson)

The average, certifiably sane person might consider the idea of writing a musical about mental illness to be a manifestation of mental illness. Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey famously proved otherwise when their path-breaking work "Next to Normal" opened on Broadway in 2009.

They didn't just put a beat to bipolar disorder, a melody to melancholy. The creators examined the dark side of the human mind with an astute and sensitive touch, drawing audiences into an intense, all-too-real drama of a suburban American family's experience with dysfunction, disillusionment and cautious hope.

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The strengths of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Next to Normal" -- more a rock opera or, given the stylistic mix in the score, a popera than a musical -- are reconfirmed in an effective revival now at Center Stage.

Director David Schweizer has the action flowing seamlessly on Caleb Wertenbaker's sleek, two-level set, vividly lit by Aaron Black and enhanced with stylish projections by Driscoll Otto. Occasional touches of choreography by Dan Knechtges spice the staging. (Some awkward business with a whirling hospital bed is an exception to the otherwise imaginative visuals).

The focal point of "Next to Normal" is Diana, a vigorously medicated wife and mother (her daughter proclaims her "Pfizer woman of the year"). Although capable of having good days, she can't seem to shake off a bleak chapter of her past. As she tells a therapist, "Most people who are happy just haven't thought about it enough."

Diana's ups and downs, her attempts to make sense of what's spinning around inside her, are conveyed with considerable skill by Ariela Morgenstern. In the opening scene, the actress is so good at suggesting an Everymom going about her regular routines that the first manifestation of bipolar behavior has a nice element of surprise (even if you are a "Next to Normal" veteran and know it's coming).

Morgentstern tends to underplay the manic side throughout. That keeps a few lines and scenes from resonating as powerfully as they might, but the payoff comes in such tender moments as the mother-son duet "I Dreamed a Dance."

The score to this show calls for as much heavy-metal-worthy wailing as soft jazz crooning (in either case, the music is mostly generic, but gets the job done). Morgenstern plunges into the rock songs gamely and makes a sufficient impact, but is at her vocal best when she isn't pushing hard. Same for her colleagues; they all suffer tonally when pumping up the volume.

Michael Winther gives quite a sympathetic portrayal of Diana's husband, Dan. Kally Duling has a limited singing voice, but she could not be much more convincing as the couple's needy daughter, Natalie.

Henry, the geeky, usually stoned kid so worried about a world full of death and disease (talk about freshly relevant) that he wants to rush into a relationship with Natalie, is brought colorfully, even endearingly to life by Matthew Rodin. He and Duling, in their final scene, produce touching results.

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Matt Lutz does dynamic work as two of Diana's doctors. And in the pivotal assignment of Gabe, who haunts this tale of contemporary life and longing, Justin Scott Brown gives a vibrant, supple performance.

A small ensemble of musicians, led from the keyboard by Darren Cohen, provides a sturdy foundation for this unusual musical about what is, for many of us, an ever-challenging struggle to savor a normal life -- or the next best thing.

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