Mental illness is becoming more widely understood in our society, but it is a slow process. Even the psychiatrists and psychologists who study mood and thought disorders admit there is a lot that is still unknown.
To the layman mental illness may seem funny or even scary. Those are both customary reactions to things we don’t understand.
Things like bipolar and schizophrenia are hard subjects to capture accurately in the world of entertainment. There is a tendency to overexaggerate and make mental illness a giant uncontrollable monster or to sensationalize it and make it seem almost glamorous in a sick and twisted way. Or, there is the age-old custom of turning it into a big joke.
BASED IN REALITY
Next to Normal is now being presented by Paramount Theatre across the street from its main facility in the beautiful Copley Theatre space in Aurora. The Tony-winning musical addresses mental illness in a frank and realistic way that touches the soul. I was not the only one in the audience shedding tears as the musical mesmerized and provoked both vivid emotion and intense thought. It is an incredible masterpiece.
Directed by the incomparable Jim Corti, Next to Normal will elicit a rollercoaster of feelings. The rock music score is powerful. The dialogue and situations are vibrant and real. The acting is spectacularly good. Everything about Next to Normal screams “go see this amazing show.” Musical theater audiences will be wowed and will learn something in the process.
Book and lyrics for Next to Normal are by Brian Yorkey, with music by Tom Kitt. The development and workshopping of the show included actors such as Alice Riley, Sherie Rene Scott, Amy Spangler, Norbert Leo Butz, Anthony Rapp, Aaron Tveit, and Brian d’Arcy James.
Under the direction of Michael Grief, who previously brought the mega hits RENT and Dear Evan Hansen to life, Next to Normal premiered on Broadway in 2009. It was nominated for a whopping 11 Tony Awards and won three – including best original score.
The tear-jerker takes us into the world of Diana Goodman, a suburban housewife and mother, who we soon learn suffers from mental illness. Diana is bipolar, with other related symptoms that can include mania, depression, delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations.
Like any good drama, Next to Normal also has a few comedic moments. However, the story and the music are clearly heavy drama at heart.
MORE THAN MENTAL ILLNESS
The story isn’t just about a woman with mental illness. It is very much a story also about how others are affected by mental illness. What is it like living with a mother who struggles with reality? What is it like for a teenager to fear bringing their date home out of embarrassment? What is it like to be the husband who has gone from lover to caretaker?
Diana and her husband Dan are the parents of two children: Gabe and Natalie. Gabe, we find, isn’t exactly what he originally seems to be. Meanwhile, daughter Natalie is teetering on the edge of sanity herself, repeatedly traumatized by her mother’s bizarre and unpredictable behavior.
As Dan bravely takes Diana to doctor after doctor, Natalie struggles to be seen by her mother who is more obsessed with her brother. The only thing keeping Natalie even in the game is her relationship with her boyfriend Henry.
I have my own unique style for writing theater reviews. My critiques usually include a personalized account of how the piece relates to my distinctive life experiences.
I relate to Next to Normal a bit more deeply than the casual audience member. In addition to my experiences in the entertainment industry, I am also an outspoken advocate for those with mental illness.
I advocate for the disabled because, to be frank, I am a member of the club. However, I always try to show what a disabled person is still capable of.
As Next to Normal points out, there is a stigma attached to living with mental illness. So, for me personally, it is always an internal struggle as to how much to disclose about my disability.
I can relate to the character of Diana because my life is complicated by similar afflictions. In addition, one of my parents is severely mentally ill too, so I can also relate to other characters who have to experience the chaos caused by a loved one who is out of reality.
In Next to Normal, Diana laments about the addictiveness of the highs and lows of bipolar, referring to them as mountains and valleys. Using medications to take away those emotions, specifically mania, is a hard thing for bipolar people to accept. This is exceptionally well captured in the song I Miss the Mountains. Other great songs include Perfect for You, I am the One, and I’m Alive.
Overall, the songs are all fantastic, not only in writing but also in delivery. Music director Kory Danielson is in rare form, and conductor Celia Villacres keeps the vision perfect during performances. The choreography by Lexie Bailey blends well with the music and action too.
Diana not only goes through epic highs and lows caused by bipolar, she also hallucinates people nobody else sees, and has delusional thoughts. Donna Louden is mesmerizing in the role, and the character traits are ones that I can relate to. Given my in-depth understanding of mental illness, for Louden’s interpretation to pass my quality assessment with flying colors says a lot.
CAST OF STANDOUTS
Jake Zimon is amazing in the role of Gabe. He looks like the average person you’d pass on the street, but he has a voice that is so stunning it will melt your snow cone and make your heart race with excitement. And then there’s the smile. Zimon has a sincere smile that makes him instantly likable.
Zimon and Louden are not alone in their ability to impress the audience. Every single member of the cast is brilliant.
Barry DeBois is excellent as Diana’s husband Dan. He is reserved as needed in terms of characterization but comes alive during songs. His duet with Zimon on I am the One is utterly astonishing.
Daughter Natalie is exceptionally well played by Angel Alzeidan and her boyfriend Henry is perfectly captured by Jake DiMaggio Lopez. Alzeidan has a bright future, and every time I see Jake DiMaggio Lopez perform I am blown away. He is a star in the making.
Devin DeSantis plays Diana’s doctor, and he is so good it hurts. DeSantis is a brilliant actor, able to switch gears on the fly in mesmerizing fashion, and his vocals are incredible.
Next to Normal, playing at the Copley Theatre, is a story about finding acceptance. Particularly it is about accepting oneself and being the best you can be in the face of struggles like mental illness. The story is accurate and riveting at the same time and the performances are astonishing.
The script digs as deep as possible in the 2-hour and 15-minute runtime. We deal with how medications can turn a bipolar person into an unfeeling zombie or how electroconvulsive therapy (ETC) is pitched as routine and harmless but can have dramatic side effects. All of these things are addressed with realism – which ultimately makes Corti’s production a masterpiece.
It can be difficult to explain mental illness, even for those who normally display a mastery of words. It’s trying to take something there are no words for and translate it into a reality other people can explain.
Next to Normal does an impressive job showing how for those who “normal” isn’t a possibility, being next to normal is the best goal we can hope for. It also sends the message of how we as a society need to accept those for whom “next to normal” is as close as we get.
I don’t need a life that’s normal-
that’s too far away.
But something next to normal
would be okay.
Next to Normal plays Wednesdays through Sundays, with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic musical is a part of Paramount Theatre’s Bold Series.
Creative staff includes Michelle Lilly (scenic designer), Yvonne Miranda (costume designer), Cat Wilson (lighting designer), Eric Backus (sound designer), Aimee Plant (properties designer), Ethan Deppe (electronic music designer), Max Fabian (intimacy director), Carla R. DeFlorio (content consultant), Trent Stork (casting director), Madeline M. Scott (stage manager), Rebecca J. Lister (assistant stage manager), Creg Sclavi (associate director), and Cameron Tragresser (associate conductor).
The Copley Theatre is located at 8 East Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora. For ticket information visit www.ParamountAurora.com or call the box office at (630) 896-6666.
I have always been impressed with the staff at the Paramount Theatre. This was my first venture into the company’s Copley Theatre location and everything there is magnificent. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and the facility is delightful.
Another great show to put on your calendar is THE PRINCESS STRIKES BACK. This hit touring comedy is coming to Chicago for two performances. I highly recommend you catch at least one!
The Princess Strikes Back answers that question in a way everyone can relate to. It will make you smile until your cheeks burn and laugh like you haven’t laughed in years.
Coming to Chicago’s North Shore at the historic Skokie Theatre on Friday August 11 and Friday August 18,
SKOKIE THEATRE Box Office: (847) 677-7761 www.SkokieTheatre.org
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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