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Incline’s “Next To Normal” is Complex, Emotional

Review by Doug Iden of Next to Normal: Incline Theatre

Next to Normal is the hopeful but ironic title of the opening musical for the District Series at the Warsaw Federal incline Theater.  It is the powerful story of a family torn apart by a wife and mother suffering from mental illness.  It is also the layered story of multi-generational misunderstanding, lack of communication, striving for personal identity, difficulties with relationships and the complexities of dealing with long term illness.

The show opens with the apparently innocuous song “Just Another Day” with four family members getting ready for their respective daily activities. Already, however, we get clues that undercurrents exist and the family may not be as connected as the song would imply.  Dad (Dan Goodman, played Brian Anderson) states several times that he “doesn’t have a clue” what his wife Diana (Lesley Hitch) is talking about. Diana blithely starts making multiple sandwiches on the floor with the explanation that she is preparing lunches for the future.  Their daughter Natalie (Leslie Kelly) is being a teenage brat and their son {Gabe, played by Tanner Gleeson) seems disengaged.

The family conflict comes to a head early when Diana prepares a birthday party to her family and new friend of Natalie’s named Henry (Elliot Handkins) which reveals Diana’s long-term mental illness and its shocking reason.  Diana’s illness causes an estrangement between her and Natalie with a resulting eruption of resentment and later the inability of Natalie to maintain a stable relationship with Henry.

Dan takes Diana to several psychiatrists (both played by Derek Harper) who tries medication first and then a shock therapy to attempt to cure Diana’s bipolar condition.  The remainder of the show deals with both the family’s and Diana’s attempts to fight the illness and cope with the results.

The show is virtually an opera with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey.  The score is a combination of ballads, rock and a hint of country music. All of the actors have excellent voices but are particularly adept at “acting” the songs with a combination of anguish, anger, disillusionment, pain, hope, longing and confusion.  Leslie Hitch as Diana sings her way through a breadth of emotions and is critical to the drama since the story evolves entirely around her.  Her song highlights include “You Don’t Know”, “I Miss the Mountains” and “So Anyway”.

Anderson (Dan) sings a loving and caring but confused role as he plaintively tries to bring Diana to reality.  Gabe counters with a raucous, defiant song “I’m Alive” is reprised several times and his unhealthy relationship with his mother widens the gap between Diana and the rest of the family. Kelly, as Natalie, swings from anger to concern for her mother and a wariness about establishing a relationship with Henry in the songs “Perfect for You”, “Hey #1 and #2) and a reconciliation duet with her mother “Maybe (Next to Normal)”. The music and singing are universally good led by music director Dr. Brian Hoffman.  The band plays well and allows the singers to project.

Brett Bowling’s sparse set design of an almost surrealistic house is very effective with the actors positioned on the various catwalks in the structure.  But the real highlight is Denny Reed’s lighting design with color changes that match the varying emotional moods of the characters.  Hues alternate between vivid greens, shocking reds, stark whites and various fadeouts.  The best example is the scene during which Diana receives the shock therapy with flashing lights and moving psychedelic images projected on the set.  The lighting becomes a character.

Director Matthew Wilson has created a taut, well-choreographed show.  There is little dancing per se but there is almost continual movement and good positioning of the actors.

I had not seen this show before but have some personal experience with the illnesses so I got into the drama a bit more emotionally than I normally would.  Still, this is an excellent production with good acting and even better singing and I encourage you to see it.  There is some adult language and the subject matter can be daunting.

Next to Normal continues at the Incline Theater through October 21.  Their next production is The Graduaterunning from January 24 through February 10.