Overheard on the way out of “Next to Normal” on Friday night: “A tough topic,” “Unique,” “Half hour too long,” “Good voices,”“Wonderful performance.” Thank you, Schenectady Light Opera Company theatergoers, for your succinct appraisal of this Tony and Pulitzer Prize Award-winning musical from 2009.
Let’s break down those comments. It is a tough topic, and composer Tom Kitt and author/lyricist Brian Yorkey have done a sociological as well as an artistic service with their up-close-and-personal look at bipolar disorder. Focusing on the Goodman family — Diana (Lindsay Dashew), Dan (Michael Bellotti), daughter Natalie (Eliza Figueroa) and deceased son Gabriel (Nicholas Cotrupi) — the musical explores the ravages of mental illness not only on Diana but also on the husband who loves her, the daughter who doesn’t know what to make of her, the doctors who treat her (Michael Lotano), and even Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry (Jacob Shipley). Yorkey especially succeeds with his infusion of humor and irony into even the bleakest moments.
‘Next to Normal’
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St. Schenectady
WHEN: Through Oct. 21
HOW MUCH: $28-$18
MORE INFO: (877) 350-7378, www.sloctheater.org
The show is unique not only in its subject matter but also in its score. It is practically a sung-through rock musical, with nearly 40 numbers over two acts, and the instrumentation for the pit band is striking: piano, cello, violin, bass, drums, and guitar. John Burmeister’s cello in particular creates a dark and haunting ambience for this sad story.
But if the music often appeals, it is also the show’s biggest liability, accounting for unnecessary length. Furthermore, there’s a sameness to the songs, in terms of tempo and vocal range, that is ultimately wearing. Even the internal rhyming becomes cloying after a while. A little variety comes in pieces like “I Miss the Mountains,” “Who’s Crazy”/”My Pharmacologist and I,” “How Could I Ever Forget?” “I Dreamed a Dance,” and the reprise of “I Am the One,” but I wished, perhaps, for a little more dialogue than song to deliver the story.
The production, however, trumps any shortcomings in the material. These six singing actors negotiate their roles with utter conviction, delivering gripping solo turns and blending beautifully in ensembles. Diction? Not a word is lost, thanks to the high expectations of musical director Jason Dashew and director Michael C. Mensching. Lotano ably does the heavy narrative lifting about medicine’s scattershot attempts to help distressed people. Shipley and Figueroa capture the angst of adolescence, a kind of Romeo and Juliet in the face of an adversary that’s hard to fight. Near the conclusion of the show, which ends with a hopeful anthem, Figueroa and Dashew movingly reveal a possible mother/daughter relationship in “Maybe (Next to Normal),” and Bellotti and Cotrupi fashion a father/dead son duet that produced sniffles behind me. Finally, Bellotti and Dashew are Everycouple, delineating the sadness, bewilderment, and love in a relationship that began 18 years before with such joy.
The production is punctuated by purple, the color of mental illness advocacy: Debbie Lummis’s costumes, Mensching and co-producer Michael McDermott’s spare tri-level set, and even the programs. Robert Healey’s lighting properly emphasizes darkness, reserving bright spots for special effects and moments of hope.
Early on Diana sings, “Do you know what it’s like to die alive?” This musical — and this sterling production — give us a good clue.