Rock Musical Next to Normal at Stages Repertory Theatre: A Hit That Will Break Your Heart

Read our interview with director Melissa Anderson.

The setup:

The regional premiere of the rock musical Next to Normal has opened at Stages Repertory Theatre, and with innovative staging, superb casting and a production dusted with magic, gives us a vehicle of pure entertainment that will break your heart as well.

The execution:

The narrative is simple and linear: The somewhat upscale suburban family has Diana wed to Dan, and they live with their daughter, 16-year-old Natalie. Diana is bipolar, and the disease seems to be progressing. Happy McPartlin plays Diana, and provides a characterization that is understated, endearing and powerful, as she grapples with entering unmapped territory in her mind and brings us with her on that voyage. It is hard to see how an actor could involve us more. Brad Goertz captures her endlessly patient husband Dan, portrayed with humor, charm and heart.

Lest this sound grim, trust me, it is not, for the brilliant director and choreographer Melissa Rain Anderson, and the design teams of Stages, have created a kaleidoscope of a set, subject to seamless changes, with characters entering and exiting from all directions, often hurtling in from aisles on wheeled chairs. The lighting design by Kirk Markley is almost another character, as the lighting shifts shape and color to match mood swings and to delineate playing areas, and the impact is subtle and wonderful. The pace is that of comedy, and the opening scenes suggest that, but soon the gravity of Diana's condition takes center stage.

The younger generation is less well-served by Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics. Natalie is played by the excellent Rebekah Stevens, required to portray primarily petulance and rebellion. Tyler Berry Lewis plays her brother Gabe, required to be sullen and vaguely menacing, and nailing that. The day is saved by Henry, steadfastly in love with Natalie, and Mark Ivy brings an attractive sweetness to the role. Kregg Alan Dailey plays two doctors, Madden and Fine, and his tall authority serves the roles well.

The music by Tom Kitt is virtually continuous, but moments of special power stand out: Henry singing "I'm Perfect for You" to Natalie; Dan and Gabe dueling for the love of Diana in "I Am the One"; Dr. Madden compelling Diana to choose in "Make Up Your Mind." In the second of two acts, Dan's rendition of "Why Stay? A Promise!" resonates with the passion of commitment.

The lyrics are the dialogue as well, and Yorkey has created a perfect combination -- achingly deep involvement with ironic distance -- and this serves the work admirably. Though billed as a rock musical, the music is supportive, not dominant, permitting the characterizations and narrative to emerge. The result is a work filled with energy and vibrating with the pulse of life; poignant and heartbreaking, it will likely to be etched in the memories of viewers. This work may seem minor, a rendering of one family's coping with modern stress, but it is truly major in that it carves its way into our souls with the acid of truth, and that is unforgettable.

The verdict:

Brilliant direction, a galloping pace and powerful acting make an award-winning musical thoroughly enjoyable while being deeply moving, in a triumphant production not to be missed.

Next to Normal continues through June 24 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527-0123 or visit the theater's Web site.

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Jim Tommaney