Next to Normal: A Rock Opera About Mental Illness — and It's Awesome

There is much suburban normalcy in the opening scene of Next to Normal — a hectic morning of rapid Cheerios consumption, backpacks slung over shoulders, briefcases, and tie-straightening. It isn't until after Mom, with factory efficiency, hands off bagged lunches to the house's scurrying denizens that things start to get a little weird. She brings the bread to the floor and begins to make sandwiches, scattering the loaf right there on the ground. For the Goodmans, this is a red flag they've seen far too often.

Next to Normal won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, and it's easy to see why. This rock-operatic roller coaster about a bipolar woman and the effect her disease has on her family has a literary pedigree that transcends mere musical theater. It's a work of art that transforms as it elucidates, and in putting a devastating human face to a ubiquitously medicated society, it may in fact be the greatest musical of its generation.

West Boca's Slow Burn Theatre Company is the second South Florida company in two years to produce Next to Normal. It's a production that had me fighting tears for the majority of it, even when I knew what was coming.

Sharyn Peoples as Diana: Joy and anger.
Sharyn Peoples as Diana: Joy and anger.

The casting is impeccable, with Sharyn Peoples as the troubled matriarch, Diana, whose vocals capture the range of manic joy, righteous anger, and numbed detachment required of her. As her precocious but underappreciated daughter, Natalie, Anne Chamberlain displays a wry comic sensibility between the lines. The dynamic farceur Clay Cartland is a standout in the musical's showiest dual roles as Diana's therapist and psychopharmacologist, whose rock-star and Latin-dance personas spring from Diana's imagination. But it's his more placid bedside manner in the later scenes that I'll remember most, suggesting an untapped potential for dramatic acting.

And best of all is Matthew Korinko as Diana's husband, Dan, hopelessly trying to empathize with his wife's condition while sacrificing his own life and career. I don't remember anything about this role from the Actors' Playhouse 2012 production of Next to Normal, but in Korinko's hands, it's the musical's most tragic and deeply felt portrait and a personal high-water mark.

Next to Normal includes nearly 40 songs, but with little spoken dialogue between them, it's a fast-moving two and a half hours. Manny Schvartzman's musical direction expertly navigates a collection of songs that mutate into one another, changing genres and rhythms on a dime. And the direction, from Patrick Fitzwater, is equally elastic, cycling through textures on a mental patient's whims; comedy and tragedy often commingle in the same number, which for this family is, if not normal, then expected.

The loudest bravo of this triumphant production, however, lands at the feet of scenic designer Sean McLelland. His 3-D dollhouse suggests an abstract living space that is as geometrically sound as it is directionally obscure: Stairs lead nowhere and doors jut out from the ceiling in an impossible M.C. Escher-esque contraption that is the physical embodiment of Diana's brain. Getting lost in someone's tortured headspace has rarely been this satisfying.

It had me fighting tears, even when I knew what was coming.

 
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