BWW Reviews: NEXT TO NORMAL at Theatre Baton Rouge

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Long gone are the golden days of musical theatre where we could get by with grand, sweeping choreography and epic singing to tell upbeat stories about life and love. We now live in a new age where musicals should move your heart and bring you to tears. In this new tradition of musical theatre comes the multiple Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning NEXT TO NORMAL, currently playing at Theatre Baton Rouge.

The story focuses on an otherwise suburban family, but there's more to it than meets the eye. Each character has their issues and grievances. Diana (Marion Bienvenu), the mother, has been suffering from bipolar disorder and manic depression for years. Her psychotic episodes weigh a heavy toll on her husband, Dan (Jason Dowies), who suffers his emotional needs just to stand by her while her doctor (Enrico Canella) treats her. In the middle of it all is their daughter Natalie (Emily Heck), who holds contempt for her mother due to years of neglect, and as a result takes it out on her new boyfriend Henry (Trey Tycer). There is also their oldest son Gabe (Jacob Voisin), who serves as the show's main antagonist.

The question remains: can a drama about a family vexed by bipolar disorder, loss and the pain of disconnection wow as a musical? The topics explored are bleaker than in most musicals, which are normally upbeat and bright. To be honest, a story about the trials of living with bipolar disorder doesn't necessarily have the same appeal as much as a plucky orphan girl, but when considering shows such as RENT and SPRING AWAKENING, sensitive topics still make for great stories.

This is the second version of NEXT TO NORMAL I have seen, and it is a fine production under the direction of Mace Archer, who challenges his actors to find the reality of the characters. Bienvenu is an exceptional Diana in this production. She owns the role, giving us all her complexities rolled into one rattled package. Heck's Natalie is an interesting portrayal, prickly and spiteful one minute, loving and lost the next. Tycer complements her well as the sweet and loving Henry. It is heart-breaking to see the parallels between them and Natalie's parents. Natalie herself is on a trajectory for self-destruction and Henry, like Dan, is eager to follow her just to remain beside her. Voisin will capture your attention as he adds to the chaos and distress of his family the minute he thinks his mother is no longer paying him attention. Dowies gives his all in a moving performance as weary and loving Dan, trying to piece his family back together, but too obtuse to understand what they really need. Canella is a delight to watch as he quickly plays the caring doctor one minute and loud rock star the next.

One of the things that troubles me with this show is the heaviness of its score. Though there are fine passages, some beautiful songs and comic moments, there is a tendency for it to feel like a great wave of sound crashing down around you. However, under the music direction of Jason Bayle, all of the singers perform with finesse and grace. Each actor sings beautifully, and you can savor each of the musical dynamics. The only flaw I found was Voisin's vocals would be overshadowed by Dowies' more prominent voice when they sang together.

Almost every word is sung, like in most musicals, but the songs vary not only in style but volume and length. One song could last for 30 seconds; pulling you out right as you were drawn in. This is just one of the ways the show reflects the state of Diana's mind. Even the set, modeled off of the original Broadway production is a gridded, multi-level piece of artistry and serves as a reminder that many things can happen in one's mind.

The strength of NEXT TO NORMAL lies in its portrayal of a real, debilitating illness. I must warn though that if you're easily swayed to tears, bring a tissue. While there is a sense of hope at the end during the finale "Light," it is just the closing to one evening in a person's life. Diana may have times of stasis and calm, but it's uncertain what the future lies in store for her, which is the reality for so many people with this disorder. Still, there is a lot to celebrate with this fully realized production.

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From This Author Tara Bennett