By Carolyn Hayes
In terms of both subject matter and medium, the rock musical “Next to Normal” (music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) easily ranks as Two Muses Theatre’s most raw offering to date. The company’s first-ever musical examines the tribulations of a woman whose chronic mental illness threatens her own well-being as well as that of her family with nonlinear flair and savage candor. Under the leadership of co-directors and producers Diane Hill and Barbie Weisserman, this production reins in the explosive sounds and pulsing sentiments of an often unrestrained genre, instead letting the Pulitzer Prize-winning words and story take the fore.
A musical is by definition a much larger undertaking than a straight play, requiring more collaborators and resources. However, this production branched out in ways that are especially notable. First, the company drew in the community for a successful Kickstarter campaign, securing more sophisticated equipment to outfit its West Bloomfield digs and offering donor rewards that tied in other area theaters. Second, Two Muses has pledged to donate $1 per ticket sold to Common Ground, an Oakland County organization that has been assisting individuals and families in crisis for more than 40 years. Among its operations, Common Ground provides mental health services and seeks to eliminate the stigma of mental illness; it’s a mutually beneficial partnership that adds an uplifting touch to this empathetic but emotionally ravaging show.
The world of the play revolves around Diana Goodman (Hill), who for years has been battling a bipolar-like disorder, and whose weapons against the disease – therapeutic, emotional, and pharmaceutical – have proven insufficient time and again. Her fear, fragility and strikingly real delusions dictate not only her day-to-day life, but also those of her husband (John DeMerell), who spares no enthusiasm in his total support; her teenage daughter (Aubrey Fink), who stews in resentful invisibility; and her doting elder son (Nathan Larkin), who isn’t as he appears. Throughout the play’s two acts, Diana registers progress and suffers setbacks as she chooses highs and lows over unfeeling stability, reels in response to a new form of treatment, and seeks balance between self and health when the two seem mutually exclusive.
All these decisions and repercussions are processed through Diana’s treacherous perspective, the success of which is thanks to a setting stripped of most detail. Designer Bill Mandt offers little more than abstract flow and a few convertible pieces, with metal accents and furnishings fending off the void. In the same vein, lights by Lucy Meyo differentiate scenes and realities without crisply dividing them, facilitating the musical crossovers and frequently bustling staging (also by Hill) that effectively convey Diana’s mental state. Small grounding influences come from Weisserman’s properties and costume designs, whose put-together suburban affect subtly comments on the disconnect between outward appearance and inner reality.
Nearly every word of the show is sung, and nearly all are crisply pronounced and sufficiently amplified, thanks to the dual efforts of microphone amplification and deliberate music direction by Jamie Brachel, who also leads the onstage trio of musicians. The singing overall is solid, with a handful of low marks that can be attributed to the supreme challenge of the score. More important to this production is the nimble conveyance of gorgeous, heartfelt lyrics and clear progression of events through the interconnected stories. Although the result largely prefers text to subtext (which too often finds the talented Hill residing in an empty state of confusion, grasping for external cues), the entire ensemble nevertheless earns numerous tear-jerking dramatic payoffs.
Diana may serve as the epicenter of the story and production, but the arcs and characters in her orbit are no less important, here taking fine form. As a key component of her support system, Richard Payton dabbles in extremes as her mirror-image doctors, but his best work is in candid words of encouragement, falling sadly short despite their evident earnestness. DeMerell both practices and preaches hope for the woman to whom he made a sacred vow, but he soars highest in anguished moments when it’s clear he has nothing to look forward to. Through harmony, Larkin deftly insinuates himself into others’ stories, although the restraint sours as his character peevishly calls for attention.
The most compelling performance may be that of the wayward Fink, an internally pained font of profanity whose guarded manner deftly expresses more than it contains. In her complicated path through coping mechanisms and chemical escape, aided by a downright idyllic starry-eyed admirer (Rusty Daugherty), every expression that cuts through Fink’s glowering defenses feels like a gift.
The tendency with musicals of this stripe is to burn big and bright – and as loud as possible. The comparatively muted and deliberate approach that Two Muses has taken is a risk that gives its production a distinctive look and feel. While this “Next to Normal” maintains the drive and daring inherent to the text, it foregoes overload and elects to tell its astounding stories with tender precision, yet retains the power to touch the viewer deeply.
‘Next to Normal’
Two Muses Theatre at Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield, Friday-Sunday through June 30. 2 hours, 25 minutes. $18-$23 in advance; $2 more at the door. 248-850-9919. http://www.twomusestheatre.org