Pop-rock opera hits right note about bipo­lar pa­tient’s dis­tress

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

DIANA looks like the typ­i­cal sub­ur­ban mom wait­ing up late for her son to come home, fret­ting about her teenage daugh­ter guz­zling a can of Red Bull to fin­ish her home­work and fit­ting in a lit­tle sex with her hus­band be­fore work the next morn­ing.

Just an­other crazy day in the Good­man fam­ily as Diana hands her de­part­ing kids sand­wiches and then starts her own manic assem­bly line of sand­wich-mak­ing that spills from the kitchen ta­ble onto the floor. Her bizarre be­hav­iour episode is wit­nessed by her hor­ri­fied fam­ily, which is not con­soled by her weak ex­pla­na­tion she was just try­ing to get ahead on lunch.

So be­gins Next to Nor­mal, the pop-rock opera about a haunted house­wife’s 16-year strug­gle with bipo­lar dis­or­der, the in­creas­ingly in­va­sive med­i­cal ef­forts to sta­bi­lize her un­bal­anced psy­che and the col­lat­eral dam­age her pre­car­i­ous men­tal health has on her loved ones. The Royal Man­i­toba Theatre Cen­tre sea­so­nen­der is a raw, af­fect­ing depic­tion of a fam­ily in emo­tional melt­down, heart­break­ing and dis­turbingly true-to-life ex­cept per­haps for the final at­tempt at uplift that doesn’t feel earned.

Set de­signer Dou­glas Paraschuk has con­structed a three­tiered, me­tal-framed Good­man home that al­lows the au­di­ence to also ob­serve the fried cir­cuitry of Diana’s jan­gled mind. When Diana, achingly played by Jen­nifer Lyon, is sub­jected to in­tense ther­apy, sec­tions of the house/brain are closed off. Diana’s son is the only one on the third storey to re­flect his place at the top of her mind.

Com­poser Tom Kitt’s rock mu­sic, although not par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable, cap­tures the dra­matic mood swings, the anger and pain. With clas­sic Broad­way bal­lads mixed in, Next to Nor­mal is sung in a style that seems per­fectly nat­u­ral.

Lyri­cist Brian Yorkey leav­ens the sober go­ings on with wel­come lev­ity, but the open­ing night au­di­ence seemed ten­ta­tive in re­act­ing to with a laugh. Diana sings a Sound of Mu­sic par­ody of her ex­ten­sive drug his­tory which ends with, “Ati­van calms me when I see the bills, they are a few of my favourite pills.”

Diana’s down­fall is trig­gered by her re­jec­tion of the meds that make her placidly numb and her de­sire to put the fun back in func­tional, a yearn­ing per­fectly cap­tured by Lyon in the bal­lad I Miss the Moun­tains.

That Next to Nor­mal is an­other play about an im­plod­ing fam­ily and trou­bled mar­riages will re­mind RMTC pa­trons of the dark com­edy Au­gust: Osage County (at the Ware­house ear­lier this sea­son) set in the three-storey home of the war- Royal Man­i­toba Theatre Cen­tre To May 12 Tick­ets: $28-$78 at 942-6537 or www.mtc.mb.ca

out of five ring We­stons. Again a piv­otal fam­ily din­ner scene, this time ac­com­pa­nied by the giddy tune It’s Go­ing to Be Good ends trau­mat­i­cally when Diana shows up with a birth­day cake when no one is hav­ing a birth­day. It forces her stead­fast hus­band Dan (Shawn Wright) to com­mit her to the more se­ri­ous treat­ment of elec­tro-con­vul­sive ther­apy and an un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Di­rec­tor Robb Pater­son deftly guides the au­di­ence through the labyrinth of men­tal ill­ness with the help of a six-mem­ber cast and six-piece band that has no weak links. Lyon is a very em­pa­thetic per­former, com­mu­ni­cat­ing the dis­con­nect be­tween her ex­te­rior beauty and the ugly thoughts in Diana’s head. Her voice is al­most per­fectly at­tuned to her char­ac­ter’s dis­tress; at times sad, tough and crav­ing. There are a few mo­ments, how­ever, when a lit­tle more fear­less­ness would be wel­come.

Two new-com­ers to the RMTC stage to­tally im­press as Diana’s chil­dren. St­effi Didomeni­can­to­nio as ne­glected, per­plexed Natalie taps into all her teenage anger in a siz­zling Su­per­boy and the In­vis­i­ble Girl. Liam Tobin’s Gabe steps up with a de­fi­ant and driv­ing I’m Alive.

Shawn Wright as saintly stoic Dan does as much as he can with the pur­pose­fully bland, ever-hopeful hus­band that re­quires abun­dant falsetto singing. Jonathan Cullen as Natalie’s stoner boyfriend also helps with the emo­tional heavy lift­ing and is rock-steady. As Diana’s clue­less doc­tor, Peter Del­wick has his mo­ment as the rock-star psy­chi­a­trist.

Like so many of Diana’s pre­scrip­tion drugs, Next to Nor­mal will not numb an au­di­ence to the harsh re­al­i­ties of love and loss in the story but leave all to feel its full im­pact. It hurts so good.

BRUCE MONK

Lyon of­fers birth­day cake to Wright, even though it is no one’s

birth­day in Next to Nor­mal.

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