Adult and Wrenching, Next to Normal Is Contemporary Musical Theater at Its Finest

The set-up:

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's multiple award-winning musical (Drama Desk, Tony, and a Pulitzer) has a first act curtain like no other. What other show ever has wheeled its leading lady into the operating room to undergo electric shock therapy then broken for intermission? There's room on the musical stage for almost anything, and Normal (Broadway debut in 2009, after wowing off-Broadway during its 2008 run) takes the subject of manic depression and turns what could be an ultra-downer into as accomplished a piece of musical theater as possible. It's a deeply moving work, yet highly exhilarating. The production from Standing Room Only does it proud.

The execution:

Suburban housewife Diana (Rachel Landon in an immaculate, bravura performance) is a mess. And she doesn't know why. She hates her life, has no feelings for her average husband Dan (Brad Zimmerman) and doesn't relate at all to her teenage daughter (Derrien Kellum), who's on the verge of a breakdown herself, barely clinging to the life raft thrown to her by stoner classmate Henry (Michael Chiavone). Diana pays inordinate attention, though, to her son Gabe (Tyler Galindo), who appears to her almost as if in a dream, popping up behind her and whispering in her ear. She comes alive in his presence. But the stress of everyday life is crushing her; the fallout scalds her family. When she makes sandwiches for her kids to take to school and finishes buttering the bread on the floor, there's no denying the seriousness of her problem.

The medical establishment in the form of doctors Fine and Madden (Zach Braver) is as stymied as Diana's clueless family. Pills seem useless to calm her relentless furies. When the family's long-buried secret is revealed during a birthday party (a revelation that arrives with dreadful calm and smacks us in the gut with utter surprise), suicide is attempted. That's when the terror of electroshock therapy is broached. There's the possibility of a cure, but that might wipe out Diana's memories - the only sweet things that keep her grounded.

Blessed with a stunning contemporary score and bitingly effective lyrics, the show keeps surprising as it returns to past melodies and spins them with greater potency. The score is labeled "rock," but this might have more to do with the high vocal line and powerhouse delivery needed for the songs' emotional heft. The specter of Sondheim swirls throughout, but then so, too, does Rogers and Hammerstein. This is Broadway song writing on an exceptionally high plane. Ballads, like "Perfect For You," sung by Henry and Natalie, or "I Dreamed a Dance," for Diana and Gabe, are lilting romances, lovely and soft; contrasted to the churning "Make Up Your Mind" or "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," power anthems with drama and drive.

SRO's ensemble is first-rate. Ms. Landon is a revelation as battered, uncomprehending Diana. There are dark tones to her voice that wrap around Kitt's vocal line like an embrace. She takes us on a thrilling ride from desperation to acceptance. Zimmerman, who looks like a suburban dad, a bit battered and frayed, is solid as the loyal spouse whose duty is to stay and help, even if he doesn't know what to do. His singing is equally solid and well-phrased. Galindo is all pouty seduction as Gabe, Diana's favorite child. He can wail as if in an arena ("I'm Alive") or croon with deceptive intent, trying to influence his mother ("There's a World"). Braver handles the dual doctors with comic timing and oily charm. Chiavone drips both innocence and bad-boy attitude as slacker Henry, singing like a real contender from a pop idol contest. Hip and sort of goofy, he's immediately likeable, cool and retro. Looking stellar in her blue grown-up gown for her date with Henry, Ms. Kellum warmed into the role. Unsteady in pitch during the first act, she found her way during the second. It might have been opening night jitters, for she hit all the right notes playing neglected Natalie, who lashes out at the world to get the attention she deserves, then turns inward. Her three duets with Chiavone whenever their characters met ("Hey") were little playlets full of gentle sincerity.

SRO's staging is minimal, which only augments the music and performances. In Hiram Olvera's platform set, the house is a lighted scrim with the outline of roof and walls. That's all that's needed. Kitt, Yorkey, and this very fine cast have filled in the rest. Director Michael Taylor keeps the pace taut and our sympathies where they should be. The energetic band, under the direction of keyboardist William Michael Luyties, includes Jeff Blankenship on guitar, Ryan Mohrman on bass, and Sean Ramos on percussion.

The verdict:

Right now Houston is blessed with three diverse musicals, all scrumptiously produced: Main Street's Into the Woods is vintage Sondheim, nimble and complex; TUTS glitters through '70s glam with Queen's We Will Rock You; while SRO's Next to Normal is contemporary musical theater at its finest: adult, undiluted, and wrenching. The Broadway musical is definitely alive and kicking.

Next to Normal sings out through February 15 at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at sro-productions.com or call 713-300-2358. $29.45-$34.63.

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