AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre
Directed by David Ira Goldstein
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA / (408) 367-7255

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Mental illness hardly seems like a topic for musical theater, but it is in "Next to Normal," and it's quite affecting in the San Jose Repertory Theatre production co-produced by the Arizona Theatre Company.

Although mental illness may afflict only one member of a family, it affects everyone else in the family. That's the situation with Diana (Kendra Kassebaum), who has been dealing with bipolar disorder for some 16 years. Her loving, loyal husband, Dan (Joe Cassidy), has tried to help her in every way he can, taking her to doctor after doctor in hopes of at least stabilizing her. Their teenage daughter, Natalie (Andrea Ross), tries to get more than just cursory attention from her parents by being a perfectionist at school and in her classical piano-playing. Consequently, she's stressed out.

The family's fourth member is son Gabe (Jonathan Shew), a constant presence in Diana's life and the likely catalyst for her illness.

In a stinging rebuke at some in the psychiatric profession, Dr. Fine (Mark Farrell), treats her with an array of drugs, all with unpleasant side effects and no psychological relief. She next sees Dr. Madden (Farrell again), who tries more conservative approaches like talk therapy and hypnotism before resorting to a more drastic series of electroconvulsive therapy sessions.

In the meantime, Natalie acquires a boyfriend, Henry (A.J. Holmes), a genial stoner whose efforts to help her relax backfire as she raids her mother's medicine cabinet. Ironically, Henry becomes a stable presence in her life. Their relationship is a kind of parallel to that between her parents. In their case, however, Dan's unwavering love and support might keep Diana from becoming more independent.

The conclusion is surprising and somewhat encouraging even though a happy ending is far from certain.

The book by Brian Yorkey, who also wrote the lyrics, is so strong that it could almost stand on its own. No doubt it played a major role in the show's winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also won three Tony Awards. Tom Kitt's rock-flavored music is pleasant, serving mainly to allow the characters to express their emotions.

The two-level set by John Ezell depicts the family's home, but a few quick changes of furniture transform it into places like the doctors' offices. Above it, what would be the sky appears to be cracked glass, indicating that all is not well beneath the roof. The six-person band, led by musical director Dolores Duran-Cefalu at the piano, sits upstage behind a scrim. The costumes are by Kish Finnegan, while the lighting and projections are by David Lee Cuthbert. The sound (too loud) is by Steve Schoenbeck.

Director David Ira Goldstein, who also did the musical staging, keeps the action flowing smoothly and logically in this two-act work. He also has an excellent cast of singer-actors. The only caveat is that Kassebaum's diction makes Diana's lyrics hard to understand at times. Otherwise, she skillfully projects Diana's vulnerability, anxiety and unpredictability. The others also make their characters believable and sympathetic.

"Next to Normal" tackles a tough but important subject in an intelligent, adult manner, making for memorable theater.

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