NEXT TO NORMAL
What: Stage musical
Where: Omaha Community Playhouse, Howard Drew Theatre, 6915 Cass St.
When: Friday through March 16. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $40 adults, $24 students
Information: 402-553-0800 or omahaplayhouse.com
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The acid test for any cast of “Next to Normal,” a musical about a family coping with mental illness, is how much they make you feel — and how deeply you feel it.
At a Thursday preview in the Omaha Community Playhouse's intimate Howard Drew Theatre, director Amy Lane's cast had audience members laughing loudly at some spots and in tears at several others. That's impressive, considering most of the audience was from show sponsor University of Nebraska Medical Center, a crowd likely to include some expertise on mental illness.
Despite powerful, pitch-perfect singing from all six actors, people were so emotionally into the moment of what was unfolding in front of them that they often didn't applaud individual songs. Yet you could feel the energy between audience and performers.
Some moments, painful and poignant, didn't feel right to applaud. But at curtain call the show got an instant, and deserved, standing ovation.
“Next to Normal,” 2010 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, features a Tony-winning rock score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It centers on Diana (Angela Jenson-Frey), a suburban housewife whose bipolar disorder and psychosis are worsening after 16 years.
Her architect husband, Dan (Jeffrey Pierce), focuses on getting his wife whatever help she needs, but they often disagree on what that is. Pills need multiple adjustments and leave Diana feeling nothing, but her psychopharmacologist (Joseph Dignoti) isn't a good listener. Her therapist (also Dignoti) is a better listener but believes therapy alone may not be enough. Eventually he recommends electroshock therapy.
Diana is pulled in two directions by son Gabe (Sam Swerczek), 18, who applauds when she pours her pills down the toilet and opposes electroshock, and Dan, who wants whatever it takes to achieve calm at home.
Daughter Natalie, 17 (Grace Bydalek), uses study and piano practice to escape the roller coaster at home. She finds control a harder knot when she starts to fall for Henry (Thomas Gjere), a pot-smoking jazz player with a big heart. It takes Henry a while to figure out the push-pull nature of Natalie's feelings for him.
In other words, all the relationships here are layered and complicated. Combine that with a score full of key changes, dissonant chords and tricky rhythms, and you've simply got to have six amazing singer-actors. Lane has them.
Music director Mitch Fuller's five-piece pit group, visible upstage throughout the show, produces a kicking rock sound. The volume (particularly drums) at times overpowered the singers, but that's a typical balance issue for a preview to work out.
Fuller and Lane have done standout work preparing singers to not just to hit notes and rhythms but to crawl into the emotion of their songs and act the guts out of them.
Lane and choreographer Michelle Garrity effectively use Steven Williams' set (a striking back wall made of 70 doors and a balcony running over a central playing area) like a jungle gym. Actors use metal railings and supports for the balcony as ladders and poles to climb, lean and swing on. Williams' lighting design, heavy on deep reds and blues, accentuates the surreal nature of plot turns.
Expect some profanity amid the emotional turmoil, and expect to need a hanky. “Next to Normal” grabs us by the lapels and refuses to let go before we've internalized a bit of what it is to live with mental illness. Lane and company bring on the bittersweet, and it's compelling theater.