Billings Gazette Review of Next to Normal

Rock score lightens heavy topic in NOVA’s ‘Next to Normal’

May 24, 2013 5:15 am  •  By Jaci Webb
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^pT^phere is a scene in the upcoming production “Next to Normal,” where an overachieving teenager loses control and the magnitude of her mother’s legacy becomes clear.

^pReal-life mother and daughter, Kristen and Bridget Mayer, take on the challenging roles of Diana and Natalie in this explosive new work about mental illness. It is being performed at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Venture Theatre) May 24 through June 9.

Set to a rowdy rock score, this is part rock concert, part drama about a serious issue that affects many U.S. families. But don’t shy away from seeing this show, thinking it will be too painful to watch. Yes, these characters are hurting. Yes, Diana is suffering from a bipolar condition and schizophrenia. And yes, it is charged with emotion. But the beauty of a show like this one is that it brings these issues out in the light, humanizing this devastating illness. There is warmth, humor and honor in this show because the characters are portrayed with such genuineness and the dialogue is so honest. There is a reason the show won three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. Brian Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics and Tom Kitt composed the music.

Kyle Trott brings a tender touch and amazing tenor vocals to the role of Diana’s husband Dan, and Lewis Rawlinson plays her son Gabe like a blazing rock star. Matthew Hagen plays Natalie’s laid-back boyfriend, Henry, giving the audience a break from the tension with lines that begin with, “dude.”

Director Lynn Al took the initiative to organize mental-health experts to be part of this production, providing handout materials in the lobby and opportunities for talk-back sessions following most performances.

“We’re working really hard to keep it healthy,” said Al, whose sister suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder

^pafter a stint in the military. “It’s an emotional roller coaster. There is one scene

^pwhere Kyle and Lewis’ characters sing that is so powerful, I cry every night.”^p

^pAs part of the cast’s introduction to the play, Al organized a visit by a representative from National Alliance for Mental Illness who spoke about her own experience with electroshock therapy.

Just as Diana’s husband questions shock therapy in the play, many people believe that the controversial treatment for mental illness went out in the 1970s after the film and play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In fact, Dan asks a doctor in the play, “They still do that?”

Al does warn folks who are predisposed to mental illness that explosive moments in the musical could trigger a reaction. Kristen plays Diana with such authenticity that even though she is a newcomer to the stage, we can feel her pain through her body language as she cringes when people get near.

The opening scene depicts Diana as a typical mom getting her two kids ready for school, making sandwiches and packing sack lunches. But when she can’t stop herself from tossing out a whole loaf of bread to make sandwiches on the floor, we sense her mania and pain.

Her husband gently takes her arm and says, “We’ll get you to the doctor.”

Even more tragic as the show unfolds is watching Diana’s teenage daughter begin to take on some of her mom’s unhealthy traits. But there is hope in knowing and trying to understand as this family works through its challenges by being open and honest and loving to one another.