By Bridgette M. Redman
The victims of mental illness spread far beyond just the person with the diagnosis. The condition insinuates its tendrils around every person who loves the one with the disease.
A musical might seem a tough medium to address such issues as the treatment of bipolar and a decades-long hallucination of a lost child, but only at first glance. Once “Next to Normal” gets started, there are moments where the emotion runs so extreme and so high that only music could do it justice. In fact, in true rock opera style, there are very few moments where mere dialogue can suffice.
What a Do Theatre Company tackles these emotions and heartbreak with an intensity that begins the moment the house lights first go out. And while director Randy Wolfe never goes for an understated choice, he also shows restraint in letting the lyrics and dialog tell the story without emotional manipulation.
Betsy King beautifully portrays the shattered woman who undergoes treatment after treatment and struggles mightily with a compromised mind and a broken soul. She is consistently loveable, even when causing the most pain to her family. Her vulnerability is apparent and she displays real connection to everyone on the stage. She shines the most when she has her moments of happiness and then those times when she longs for the happiness that she cannot maintain.
Likewise, Ashlyn Nicole Shawver as the daughter Natalie perfectly mirrors her mother’s struggle, and we see her sanity and stability slowly chipped away at. The chemistry between her and Adam Woolsey’s Henry is always real and electric; he becomes her greatest hope for achieving something that might live somewhere next to normal.
The scenes where Woolsey woos Shawver are moments of great beauty, especially when he tells her that in a fucked-up world, he can be perfect for her. It is a sentiment that takes on greater meaning as the musical progresses and he is able to show the very practical, realistic meaning of what it means to be perfect for someone in an environment that is messed up.
Phillip Michael McLellan’s Gabe – who often had uncanny similarities in movement and expression to Woolsey – eerily haunts the stage. His singing was powerful, emotional and often truly frightening in the way it gripped the others on stage. Even more impressive was his physicality and expressions, the way he created a presence that could not be ignored. He was both demon and angel, the one who sustained and destroyed.
Jeff Stierle’s Dan was a study in steadfastness. Two decades of insanity could not sway him from the memory of the girl he loved or erase his optimism that there would come a time when things were going to be good, better than they were before. His portrayal was also often heartbreaking as he wore his heart on his sleeve, injured that his love was not sufficient to heal his family and wrestling with the anxiety that this disease might be about him.
James Sanford was given roles that seemed almost comic compared to the intensity of what the family had to portray. He provided moments of relief as Diana’s pyschopharmacologist and later the hallucinated version of Diana’s therapist. But even his concern was obvious, and he aptly demonstrated how professionals come to care about their patients and the frustrations they experience when treatments are ineffective or intense side-effects are experienced.
At the matinee on the second weekend, the singers were showing signs of vocal fatigue, particularly in the first act where voices occasionally crept into their throats and the difficult music was left unsupported. However, after intermission, these problems vanished and the ending was strong and moving.
Musical director Brent Decker might have offered more support to the performers by dialing back the music. While the actors could always be heard when they were center stage, important lyrics were sometimes lost when a scene was played stage left or stage right on the long proscenium that What a Do possesses.
Cory Kalkowski’s lighting design once again played a starring role in this What a Do production. Special effects surrounded the stage with four mobile spotlight operators required to pull off his complicated design that pushed the story and the emotions forward.
Tara Bouldrey and Taylor McKinstry doubled as “Venticelli,” masked mime-like creatures pulled from the operatic tradition. They act as an occasional chorus and as set changers that allow the musical’s scenes to continue without a single interruption.
The performers and crew of “Next to Normal” show great passion in presenting this story of hope, pain and survival. While it is not perfect in execution, it is perfect in its commitment to the story that needs to be told.
‘Next to Normal’
What A Do Theatre, 4071 W. Dickman Rd., Springfield. 8 p.m. Feb. 28 through March 2. 2 hours, 19 minutes. $20; pay-what-you-can Feb. 28. 269-282-1953. http://www.whatado.org