“Next to Normal” indeed exceeds all expectations and is stocked with a fine, harmonious cast lead by Sara Tolson in her gut-wrenching, magnum opus performance. Prepare to laugh some but, by all means, bring your travel size Kleenex.
BY SANDY STAGGS
You won’t find any dazzling dance sequences, bouncy songs full of sunshine and smiley faces, or perky blonde law students in The Market Theatre Company’s summer musical “Next to Normal.”
It’s just not that kind of show. But what you will experience is a robust, sensitive and heartbreaking story and a sensational score that deservingly nabbed the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award.
Sara Tolson plays Diana Goodman, a typical wife and mother of two teenagers. Though we discover in the very first scene with an abundance of sandwich assembling, all is not well in the Goodman household and that Diana suffers from an advanced case of bipolar disorder, a disease that is tearing the family to shreds.
Already on stage and in character as the audience files in, Tolson delivers an award-worthy turn here as she takes us fathoms deep into Diana’s dark world and inner monologue and her 16-year battle with mental illness through a series of doctors, a myriad of medications and even an extreme form of therapy that this critic will not give away here.
Diana is dream role for any actor, but also a taxing, emotional cross to bear. This mental odyssey would destroy most performers with limited range and strength, but Tolson sells this role with technical aplomb and musical mastery and perseveres with a deliberate, brutal honesty that never strays.
Neither does Christopher Rose, the longtime Upstate actor who returns to the stage after a string of successful directing gigs with both The Market Theatre Company and the Mill Town Players, including the award-winning production of “Of Mice and Men.”
As husband Dan, Rose astutely captures the compassion and pain as he almost helplessly stands by her side and attempts to hold his family together.
“Next to Normal” also features a the trio of exceptional youngsters: an engrossing and intense Matt Groves as son Gabe, a marvelous Kelly Crittendon as the anguished pianist daughter Natalie, and the always infallible Drew Kenyon as Natalie’s love interest Henry, a free spirited stoner and artistic type who probably has the funniest lines of the play.
And then there’s Craig Smith as the two psychiatrists. You’ll be seeing a lot more of Smith as he gears up for his first professional season as a resident actor at Greenville Little Theatre. This is the second doctor role I have seen him play – he was Dr. Rank in Anderson University’s exquisite production of “A Doll’s House” last year – and he doesn’t disappoint here, particularly as the “rock star” Dr. Madden when he momentarily personifies one of Diana’s delusions.
The musical’s authors Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt go to great lengths to humanize mental illness and its effects on a sufferer’s loved ones without venturing into pedantic or preachy tangents, and even manage to reference notable cases of mental illness such as actress Frances Farmer and McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
And their songs reflect Diana’s psyche, vacillating between periods of hyper mania and destructive depression. The almost-patter lyrics of “It’s Gonna Be Good” and the carnival rhythms of the brilliant “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” (Diana’s whirlwind foray into medication cocktails set to “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music” with lines like “Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax” replacing “cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels”) alternate with the poignant lament in “Didn’t I See This Movie?”, the country-flavored sentiment of Diana’s numbness in “I Miss the Mountains” and the power rock of “I’m Alive.”
“Next to Normal” is tenderly and intelligently directed by Market Theatre co-founder Noah Taylor with Music Direction by Julia West. Taylor also designed the set, a white (almost sterile) wall and platform that services the production well.
The music tracks are crisp and perfectly executed on opening night (Kyra Morgan/Wes Tolson) and Eli Carnahan’s lighting astutely reflects the cathartic moods of each song from sparkling rock performances to the low lows of depression and anguish.
As in the Broadway show, the songs are not listed in the playbill so for further appreciation of this work, turn to Spotify or iTunes.
“Next to Normal” is part of the Anderson Theatre Festival and runs through July 23 at the Market Theatre, 110 W Federal St. in Anderson. Shows are Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. All tickets $10 at the door or online at http://www.themarketanderson.org.