The Pulitzer Prize for drama has gone to Broadway musicals only eight times in 100 years, rewarding works with groundbreaking form and content. “Next to Normal,” the 2010 winner, is a clear-eyed but sympathetic look at the devastating effects of mental illness on individuals and their loved ones that manages to be both instructive and entertaining. North Carolina Theatre’s highly polished production expertly balances dazzling showmanship with gripping emotion.
The show centers on Diana, whose bipolar condition has severely affected relationships with her long-suffering husband, Dan, and her sullen teenage daughter, Natalie. Diana’s obsessive devotion to her son, Gabe, born 16 years earlier, has led to hallucinations that shut out Dan and Natalie.
After becoming more erratic, Diana consults a doctor whose dizzying array of medications makes her numbed and emotionless. She switches to another doctor who suggests electric shock therapy as the only solution. The resulting memory loss obliges her to relearn her past through family photos and mementos, forcing her to face her demons and make life-changing decisions.
Director Casey Hushion guides her talented, all-Equity cast through Tom Kitt’s wide-ranging score and Brian Yorkey’s intelligent lyrics in an impressively precise staging. She makes full use of Chris Bernier’s two-tiered set, its skeletal scaffolding constantly changing under Charlie Morrison’s glowing lighting design. Nancy Whelan’s six-piece orchestra deftly captures the music’s moods, supporting the cast’s superb vocals.
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Raleigh native Lauren Kennedy applies her well-established talents to Diana, the character’s initial confident self-denial later crumbling into moving despair. Charlie Pollock makes Dan’s loving devotion to his wife admirable while revealing crushing anguish underneath. Charlie Brady efficiently embodies the two doctors’ differing approaches.
English Bernhardt ably supplies Natalie’s anger and self-pity, born of Diana’s neglect, and wins audience sympathy projecting Natalie’s desperate need for love. As Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend, Ben Fankhauser warmly registers Henry’s determination to break through Natalie’s tough, dismissive shell.
Special recognition goes to Mike Schwitter, who inhabits Gabe with a laser-like intensity, astutely portraying his sweetly innocent and knowingly manipulative sides, particularly in his showstopper, “I’m Alive.” Several stunning revelations about Gabe, not to be spoiled here, add to the multilayered insights in this most compelling presentation.
What: “Next to Normal,” presented by N.C. Theatre
Where: Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
When: 7:30 p.m. May 5-10; 2 p.m. May 9-10
Info: 919-831-6941 or nctheatre.com