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Nothing normal about mental illness musical

Arts Club season opener shockingly entertaining

Next to Normal

At The Stanley until Oct. 9


I knew next to nothing about Next to Normal in spite of it winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2009 Tony Award (Best Score) for Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics). But it didnt take Arts Club artistic managing director Bill Millerd long to see Next to Normal as a dynamic opener for the Arts Club 2011-2012 season. An enthusiastic standing ovation on opening night proved, once again, Millerds judgment.

This is no South Pacific. The music is terrific, but you wont leave whistling anything. And you can hardly imagine a less likely subject for a rock musical than mental illness, but there it is. And, amazinglywith a few quibblesit works.

No reservations about this superb cast and excellent production, however. Set designer Ted Roberts provides the mere skeleton of a house with vertical pillars, no walls, and only hints of kitchen, bedroom and psychiatrists office. Co-musical directors Bruce Kellett and Ken Cormier lead a lively band on an elevated landing stage right; Marsha Sibthorpes lighting moves us from place to place. Its all clean and strong.

Not strong at all is the character Diana (Caitriona Murphy), a middle-aged housewife suffering from bi-polar disorder. Taking a cocktail of pharmaceuticals, she appears to be stable until the family finds her manically slapping together sandwiches all over the floor. Back to the psychopharmacologist, Dr. Fine (Matt Palmer) and more meds.

A suicide attempt sends Diana to a new doctor. Dr. Madden (Palmer again) tries talk therapy, but when that fails, he pulls out the big gun: ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), formerly known as electroshock therapy.

Quibble number one with the plot: up to this point, Next to Normal has been next to real. But when ECT is suggested, Maddenwho has seemed to be a decent, caring fellowdoesnt discuss to any great extent the possible side effects. Nor do they ask. I know, its a musical, but it has felt so real up to this point. And Dianas subsequent severe and extended memory loss is casually written off by the psychiatrist.

Quibble number two: Dianas daughter Natalie (wonderful Jennie Neumann), largely ignored by Diana throughout her life, herself turns to dope, uppers, downers, anything in her moms medicine cabinet. It may be how it goes, but it feels like a cliché.

Quibbles with the plot aside, the production is terrific. Kimmel and Murphy are heart wrenching as they sing of Dan and Dianas grief and confusion. Murphy tugs at the heartstrings in, I Miss the Mountainsa song about medication keeping her from both the highs and lows of life. And Kimmel, a big teddy bear of a guy, shows the agony of watching someone he loves spiraling down. In Perfect For You, Neumann and Sheen (as Natalies sweet-natured boyfriend) remind us of how it must have been for Dan and Diana who were also perfect for each other until tragedy struck. The unwitting villain in Next to Normal is Gabe (Eric Morin), but writing about him would be a spoiler. Morin is handsome, powerful and moves like a dancer. Even then, we wish Gabe would go away. And stay away.

The curtain falls on what feels like a forced and inordinately cheerful notethe entire ensemble ringing out a celebration of hope. Bright lights and high energy; a real showstopper of an ending, guaranteed to get an audience on its feet. If Stephen Sondheim had written Next to Normal, however, it would have had a wistful rather than a loud and proud sign off. But then, who (other than me) would want an evening at the theatre to end with a familyas it is in the real worldjust hanging on?

It is, however, a fabulous production and a powerful season opener for the Arts Club.