“Next to Normal,” an Abnormally Compelling Play

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- “Mental Illness: The Musical!” That title probably would scare off most theatergoers. Thankfully, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the creative team behind 2009’s Pulitzer Prize-winner for Best Drama, opted for the title, “Next to Normal.”

The Theatre League’s production of this challenging rock operetta, now playing through June 10th at the Kauffman Center, is a smart, thought-provoking and dynamic play. It expands the musical format into a realm that was once the exclusive territory of straight drama.

It would be completely apropos if “Next to Normal” sparks memories of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” In terms of subject matter, theme and structure, these two notable theatrical works have much in common.

Deb Lyons plays Diana Goodman, a middle-aged woman coping with bipolar disease and depression. Her struggle makes life difficult for her forbearing husband, Dan (Jonathan Rayson) and neurotic teenage daughter, Natalie (Kristin Parker).

For reasons that quickly become clear, only Diana’s teenage son Gabe (Will Holly) seems unfazed by his mother’s condition.

Other characters affected by Diana’s illness include Natalie’s persevering boyfriend Henry (Mo Brady) and Diana’s psychiatrist, Dr. Madden (Peter James Zielinski).

One could easily interpret “Next to Normal” as a scathing criticism of modern psychiatry. Every treatment from counseling to drugs to electroshock therapy seems fruitless in Diana’s case.

On the other hand, one could argue that all of the characters are affected by some degree of psychosis, demonstrating that finding the right balance in treatment is a daunting challenge, differing widely from person to person.

As with all good musical theatre, if you strip away the music from “Next to Normal,” you still have a relevant story. While most of Yorkey’s dialogue is sung, it would be just as effective if simply spoken.

Lyons gives a splendid performance. Not only does she create a compelling, well-rounded character, but does so while artfully singing Kitt’s challenging melodies. Indeed, all of the cast members handle the difficult material with considerable skill.

Director Nicole Capri direction is creative and sound, effectively exploiting Mike Nichols’ nifty two-level set. All of the production values are equally strong.

The only drawback with “Next to Normal” is that it tends to be repetitious, both musically and thematically. In fact, the show might be even more effective if it were twenty minutes shorter.

Parents should be warned that this is strictly adult material, and that the play includes profane language and drug use.

While “Next to Normal” isn’t always easy to watch, it is a bittersweet and intriguing work that deserves to be seen.

“Next to Normal” runs through June 10th at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo. Tickets are available at the Kauffman Center box office, or by calling 816-994-7222. More information is available at www.theatrelague.com.

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