Next to Normal is far from an ordinary musical. It is not a feel-good romp, but it does make you feel, deeply. And you might laugh out loud even as you plumb the depths of some very dark places. In this case, a house in suburbia.
Onstage through June 17 at Hillcrest Center for the Arts, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, with music by Tim Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is about a mother with bipolar disorder and its effect on her and her family. We are invited into their world, which is a maelstrom of manic episodes, terrifying numbness, delusions, grief, resentment and good intentions.
Soon after we meet Diana (the wonderful Michelle Lane) we see how her illness colors her family’s world. The more Diana succumbs, the more upended and unhinged their lives become. In her director’s note, Corey Lynn Howe describes Next to Normal as “an explosion of the human experience.” That it is. Or perhaps it’s more like a constant rumbling, and the light ahead could be a way out or an oncoming train. In any case, one need not have experience with bipolar disorder to empathize with the emotions and fears that course through the play.
At its core, Next to Normal is about the self, and even more so about family and love — from its first ember to its waning flame. Diana explains that she feels pain, not just in her mind, but in her heart and soul. How could the three ever be separated? This one line captures what a complicated and incomprehensible tangle it is to be human. Imagine a play with a multitude of such revelations and you can understand why you might want to cuddle up to a pint of ice cream after seeing the show. And yet you will root for Diana and her family, and somehow feel uplifted with them by play’s end.
The talented cast also includes Brent Ramirez, who bestows upon Diana’s husband, Dan, a boyish charm as well as the weariness of a man trying to hold his family together. Julia Lester is marvelous as their daughter, Natalie. Landen Starkman is commanding as Gabe, their son. Daniel Bellusci gives dimension to Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry. Renee Cohen plays Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden with equal aplomb.
Howe, who also designed the well-conceived set, keeps the actors moving, thus keeping the tension taut. Costumes by Katie Sikkema and wardrobe by Barbara Mazieka help bring the characters to life. Lighting design by Shara Abvabi and sound design by Rick Barton evoke everything from a character’s state of mind to the disconcerting flashes of electroconvulsive therapy.
Kitt and Yorkey’s songs are plentiful and don’t pull any punches. The cast, all with strong voices, is accompanied by a live band featuring music director and keyboardist Jan Roper, Jeff Castanon on guitar, Steve Clift on bass, Jeff Gibson on synthesizer and Alan Peck on percussion. It doesn’t miss a beat. It’s curious that the actors are miked, when letting them sing on their own power in the small venue might allow their voices to ring with even more truth and impact.
Next to Normal takes its name from the characters’ realization that they may never have a “normal” life, but maybe they can get close to normal, or even next to it. Maybe. But where is normal, anyway?
Next to Normal through June 17 at Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For schedule, tickets and more information, call 805-381-2747 or visit hillcrestarts.com.