Face the music

‘Next to Normal’ at Victoria Theatre

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: “Next to Normal” at Victoria Theatre; [clockwise from top left] Emily Price, Jon Hacker, Trisha Rapier and Jamie Cordes; photo credit: Scott J Kimmins

“Next to Normal” – a rock opera with a plot and a social conscience – is now playing at the Victoria Theatre as part of the Premier Health Broadway Series. Locally produced by The Human Race Theatre Company, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama and the 2009 Tony Award winner for Best Score includes both New York and local professionals.

The plot involves life in a family living with a bi-polar member; lives that are touched and twisted by the actions and reactions that affect spouse and children. Mental health and the need for treatment is real life. Considering the ethics of treatment is very much a part of this tell-it-like-it-is story line. It was a bold topic when it debuted on Broadway four years ago, and it continues to feel brave and edgy, working in powerful ways thanks to the strong performances and wise direction.

Director Scott Stoney has selected a cast of strong voices, a well-balanced ensemble able to meet the musical challenge of an opera form with almost every word sung. As the mom, Trisha Rapier carries the load – both musically and dramatically. With subtlety and vulnerability, Rapier gives us the ups and downs her character, Diana, constantly experiences.

As in real life families, everyone who shares a bi-polar person’s life has stories to tell. Eric Michael Krop is Gabe, the son, who not only energizes the show musically, but adds the drama of hallucination to his mother’s perceptions, evidencing her illness. Their scenes together are well-balanced and powerful.

Dan, the faithful husband who tries to help to be logical in the face of feelings and behaviors he cannot understand, is played by Jamie Cordes. His pain and the kind of support he offers is written with understanding by Yorkey and played with quiet perception.

The forgotten child – often a victim in real life bi-polar families – Natalie changes from a compulsive, overachieving daughter to a disenchanted, desperate druggie, played by Emily Price. Along with Diana and Gabe, Natalie sings “Superboy and Invisible Girl.” Of course, she has to acquire a boyfriend. Henry – played by young Jon Hacker – is just savvy enough to understand that Natalie needs consistent support. He perseveres with three progressive musical pleas; “Hey” to Natalie to let him be there for her.

Beyond the immediate family comes the doctor – or a series of doctors – and questions of ethics. Ably contrasted are Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, each played by J.J. Tiemeyer. Should Diana be medicated to the point where she is “stable” without feeling any ups or downs? “I Miss the Mountains,” she sings. Should she receive Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) treatments and lose many of her memories? And then what? She sings, “Wish I Were Here.” How does a family know the answer to questions like that? Whose decision is it to make? How do they cope with the consequences? What is “normal”? This show does ask its audience to think … and to feel.

The music by Tom Kitt, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is smart and melodic. It ranges from belt-it-out rock to a smidgen of a “Sound of Music” joke – “My Favorite Pill’ – and varieties in between. Most of the lyrics are clear and well projected, although the five-piece orchestra occasionally overwhelms. A few audience members felt some of the songs sung from the second story of the house were not clear.

Unusual in a rock orchestra is the cello, played by Jacob Yates. The poignancy and pain of Kitt’s music written for that instrument is striking. Conductor Jay Brunner (guitar) shares the musical direction with Scott Stoney, who also is credited as choreographer.

The three-story set by David Centers is very linear and compartmentalized, perhaps reflecting the divisions between characters and their individual needs. It is geometric and strong, while being flexible and functional. It works with the creative lighting design by veteran John Rensel, with bold colors changing and illuminating the house, reflecting feelings the characters are experiencing.

In a pre-opening interview, Eric Michael Krop (Gabe) said one of the show’s challenges is singing while running up and down the stairway. He gets lots of opportunities to prove just how well he has conquered that task.

In the same interview, Trisha Rapier (Diane) said she had first become aware of the show several years ago and is thoroughly delighted with the opportunity to perform it in Dayton. “The cast has come to know and understand each other and the meaning of the script, thanks to our rehearsal time together with Scott,” said Rapier. For Director Stoney, his early “table work” where the actors dig in to the play’s conflicts and connections is essential.

“Next to Normal” is a different sort of offering for the Broadway series and some audience members may be surprised by serious issues as entertainment. Like many other topics that we previously “just didn’t talk about,” mental illness may affect someone we know, whether we talk about it or not. Many families, not only the family on stage, find the strength to cope. The play ends on a note of hope, not a pat solution. Like the late second act mother/daughter duet, “Maybe,” the Victoria and the Human Race offer hope for increasing awareness that we are all next to normal.

“Next to Normal” runs through Sunday, May 19 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Tickets are $40-$86, plus fees. For all times and additional information, please visit victoriatheatre.com/shows/next-to-normal/.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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