‘Next to Normal’ Sports a Flaw — But the Ensemble…

Next to Normal, the current entry from San Diego Musical Theatre, has 38 numbers over its 2 1/2-hour running time. If you don’t count the sucky ones, the total drops to 34 or 35 — still, that’s a lot of tunes in there, enough to suggest that the show is not so much a stage musical as something out of another genre, like operetta.

But when something wins the 2010 Pulitzer prize for drama in its depiction of American life (which this play did), you heed the greater import. In so doing, you discover that something fundamentally critical in the story just doesn’t quite ring true. Then again, neither does the medical profession’s assessment of the central figure’s bipolarism — so suddenly, there’s a lot to cheer about again.

Let the glaring flaw run its course, and by all means, let the music play. Next to Normal is a very, very good show by any measure, for both its culture of ensemble and its brutally honest reflection on a national scandal at the heart of lost love.

Gabe and Dan Goodman (Eddie Egan, left, and Robert J. Townsend, right) flank an exasperated Diana (Bets Malone). Photo by Lily Lim

Gabe and Dan Goodman (Eddie Egan, left, and Robert J. Townsend, right) flank an exasperated Diana (Bets Malone). Photo by Lily Lim

Things haven’t gone all that well in Diana Goodman’s world for quite some time. The petite, very pretty, fortysomething housewife has met life at sixes and sevens for some 17 years, when her bipolarism manifest following the death of her infant firstborn. Doggedly altruistic Dan is a prince of a husband and caretaker, while quick-witted “little shit” son Gabe sulks his way through life and spooky-kooky daughter Natalie obsesses over Mozart as a defense against maternal neglect. This family is a train wreck of a train wreck, especially amid Dan’s wrongheaded reluctance to face facts. For her part, Diana eventually hits upon a means to restore some normalcy to her life — and as crushingly hurtful as it is, her solution is also unfailingly correct.

It’s also especially heroic in light of the colossal beating Diana’s taken at the hands of a yammering medical profession, with its pathetic, one-size-fits-all approach to her dilemma, culminating in a course of electroconvulsive therapy. Diana’s emerging memory of her dead son does fuel a certain measure of cognition — and that’s where I have to take grave exception. Amid 17 years’ treatment with who knows how many doctors and prescriptions, with her family crumbling bit by bit day by day, with at least one suicide attempt in her MO, with the boy’s unbearably painful death squeezing her lifeless, Diana arrives at a perfectly rational denouement on the strength of one restored memory alone? That’s stretching believability an awful lot in this Nick DiGruccio-directed entry, so much so that it almost distorts the play’s construction, sending it into yet another genre.

But this development is by no means a deal-breaker amid the splendid songmaking and vocals. Bets Malone’s beleaguered Diana has almost literally grown eyes in the back of her head, and Malone beautifully sings her character into our consciousness accordingly (“I Miss the Mountains,” “You Don’t Know”). Robert J. Townsend wraps Dan in an unassuming vocalism and set of mannerisms (in many ways, this is Dan’s play, and in his “It’s Gonna Be Good,” Townsend sure doesn’t miss much in conveying that). Lindsay Joan turns her Natalie’s emotions on a dime (with the voice that comes through in “Perfect for You,” it’s hard to believe Joan is only 16), and when you least expect it, Eddie Egan’s cranky enabler Gabe (“I’m Alive”) can also be downright charming. Natalie hooks up with harmless stoner Henry along the way, and Eric Michael Parker is admirable in this cleanly drawn subtext, as is Geno Carr in the wildly divergent roles of Diana’s two docs.

Music director Don LeMaster has been San Diego Musical Theatre’s resident conductor since the group’s inception in 2006, and his familiarity with the group’s objectives is highly evident here. He collaborates with the ideas behind Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s effulgent music, just as Mark Wendland’s sparse set design gives and takes at the right intervals.

Full disclosure: A departed close family member underwent shock therapy for a panic disorder when the treatment was much more in vogue than it is today; I’m thus deeply affected by this musical and its expository take on the so-called healing arts. “You don’t have to be happy at all,” Diana warbles in “Light,” the finale, “to be happy you’re alive” — a mantra that the profession might wish to adopt on behalf of its clientele. It’s too late for my loved one, but Next to Normal is here to remind us of our stunning clarity of thought when left to our own devices. It may be a little heavy on the music logistically, but there’s never enough of its lesson in the enduring power of love.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Sept. 28. Next to Normal runs through Oct. 12 at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave. in North Park. $16-$56. (858) 560-5740, sdmt.org.


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