"Next to Normal," the new show by 2nd Street Theater, is based on a Pulitzer-winning Broadway rock musical that tells the story of a family on the brink of collapse. Diana Goodman is trying to be a good mother and an attentive wife, even as her bipolar disorder worsens by the day. She is hallucinating and sinking deeper into despondency, desperately trying to find the perfect pharmacological cocktail to make everything run a little brighter. Her husband Dan so very much wants his family to return back to normal, that anything outside of that perfect ideal is ignored or fought. Her daughter Natalie is an overachieving and brilliant girl who is struggling with how to deal with a mentally ill mother and a father who can't connect with her. As Diana sees different doctors to try to find peace and Natalie meets a sweet stoner who introduces drugs as a way to numb the pain, the family falls apart one song at a time.
Every square inch of the play is focused squarely on pain and the way a suburban American family goes about alleviating it. Since most of the dialogue is sung, "Les Mis"-style, that means the lyrical content is filled with some of the bravest and most heartrending emotion that has ever come out of Broadway or the musical theater scene in general. Watching these people gradually lose almost everything is rough, but in a way it's more cathartic than depressing.
The performances are uniformly strong, with Caitlin Ford, Ryan Klontz, Steven Livingston, Katie Bullock, John Kish and Ben Larson all reaching the heights and depths needed to make these characters breathe. The small, yet powerful orchestra swelled and subsumed flawlessly under the excellent Meagan Iverson's musical direction.
This show could have been a spectacular failure if the subject matter and the rock opera aesthetic had clashed, but director Brad Ruder never lets the show flounder in its seriousness. The set is kept simple and sparse so the audience is forced to deal with the emotions head-on without any superfluous frills to draw attention.
"Next to Normal" doesn't have any easy answers for the tough questions that plague these characters. Instead, the show sheds light on avenues for communication. It helps create a dialogue for people dealing with these issues that they might not have had before, and leaves viewers more enlightened through the process.
In a town the size of Bend, it's difficult to know which shows will sell and which will leave seats empty with talented casts performing to an audience smaller in number than they are. For every success like "Evil Dead: The Musical" there is something like "Shadowbox" or "Bug" that, regardless of how successful artistically, the audience just doesn't come out for. One of the main reasons for that is the promise of fun. A night out at the theater for some people can be a production in and of itself: finding a babysitter, forking out the cash and sometimes even just putting on pants, so it can be hard to pull that audience in if the subject matter is going to be serious or uncomfortable. "Next to Normal" stacks the deck with so much talent (vocal, instrumental and otherwise), that even in the midst of such powerful work, it is still a very good time.
"Next to Normal"
Feb. 12-27, 7:30 p.m., matinees at 3 p.m.
2nd Street Theater,
220 NE Lafayette Ave., Bend