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'Next to Normal' uncomfortable -- and well done

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This is not a comfortable show to watch.

That's to be expected, considering that the plot centers on a suicide attempt, chronic mental illness and controversial treatment methods.

"Next to Normal," written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, earned several Tony Awards in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. The show tells the story of a family that's plagued by bipolar disorder and depression after enduring a devastating trauma.

Emily Capece plays the mother, Diana, transitioning flawlessly between sanity and delusion. Whether she's tossing slices of bread on the floor during a fit or quietly leafing through family photos, she makes audience members sympathetic to her current mental state.

Her weeks include routine trips to a therapist. During one session, Diana expresses her frustration with years of failed treatment and sums up one of the show's central themes: "Most people who think they're happy are actually just stupid."

Needless to say, the relationship between Diana and her husband, Dan (Ryan Hardiman) is strained. Dan spends the entirety of the show making desperate attempts to keep his family sane. Despite his continued presence, though, he maintains the aura of an overworked husband who's consistently fading into the background.

"Next to Normal" is less of a musical and more of a rock opera, as there's little dialogue and no chorus. Cast members sung background for one another, dancing to tunes about prescription drugs and their side effects.

Some of the best vocal moments of the show occurred when cast members sang together. "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," which ends as a duet between Diana and Don's children (played by Madeline Southall and Matthew Bryant), had tight harmonies that were spot-on.

Although some of the show's scenes got chuckles, the laughs were short-lived. More often, the action onstage evoked gasps from audience members.

One of the most poignant scenes of the show closes act one, during the song "A Light in the Dark" Dan reminds Diana of a time when they used to be happy and tells her they will find that feeling again. Only then do they share their first kiss of the show, with Diana sitting on a hospital bed. The song is the most hopeful moment of the musical to that point, and, consequently, the scene also becomes one of the saddest.

While some aspects of the show convey happiness amid turmoil -- mainly an enduring romance between Diana's daughter and her boyfriend -- the show ultimately sends the message that there are some problems neither medicine nor love can fix.

"Next to Normal" is presented by the Charleston Light Opera Guild Lead, under the direction of Nina Denton Pasinetti and musical director John Marshall.

The musical plays Saturday, and June 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday and June 24 at 5 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center Little Theater.

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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