“Normal” it’s anything but.
The StageWorks Fresno premiere of “Next to Normal” raises the bar for well-crafted local musical productions. There are so many strong points to this beautifully staged rock opera: Stellar singing and acting in the leading roles. Superior stagecraft. Brisk direction. A killer live band.
Most important, this powerful production, which opened Friday at the Dan Pessano Theatre, does justice to the emotional intensity of the Pulitzer Prize-winning material. For those more attuned to cheery subject matter and light-hearted frivolity in their musicals, experiencing a show about a woman with bipolar depressive disorder who winds up treated with electroconvulsive (shock) therapy might be a stretch — and even a little scary. But “Next to Normal” is more than just a show about mental illness. It’s about family. It’s a towering tale of love, grief and resilience in a world in which we all, at one time or another, feel a little bit crazy.
When “Next to Normal” debuted in New York in 2007, the acclaimed Alice Ripley starred as Diana, the central character whose battle with mental illness is the central storyline in Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics. I saw Ripley in the show twice, once Off-Broadway and once on Broadway, and like many who saw her towering performance, I couldn’t quite imagine any other actor following in her footsteps.
But I was wrong. Melinda Parrett, a professional Equity performer brought in by StageWorks to play this all-important role, gives us a Diana that pays homage to Ripley’s iconic portrayal but more than makes the character her own.
Parrett’s Diana is a little darker, a little less manic, a little more angled and precise. As Diana’s mental condition deteriorates — her doctor first ramps up her meds, then suggests a last-resort treatment of electroconvulsive therapy — we spend a lot of time in the character’s head. But thanks to Parrett’s careful choices (and J. Daniel Herring’s sensitive direction), we don’t get trapped in that head. The relationships in Diana’s life are what gives this piece its heart, and Parrett’s keen connections with her fellow actors give the piece a complicated, believable sheen.
Parrett gets strong support from the rest of the local cast. Joel Abels (also a member of Equity and the company’s artistic director), in a smart and finely wrought performance, aches as Dan, Diana’s long-suffering husband, who has stood by his wife for years through her illness. At times bewildered by his wife’s mood swings, at others captivated by her intensity, Dan is on a journey of his own — and along the way reveals how terrified he is of being alone. (His song “I’ve Been” is wrenching.) It’s intriguing to watch Abels closely during his character’s moments of inner turmoil. When things get really heavy, he and Parrett are combustible together.
It helps that this production has such an intimate feel. (The beautiful new Dan Pessano Theatre is a perfect venue.) When Parrett sings the heavy-duty tune “I MIss the Mountains” — which encapsulates Diana’s longings for a less-medicated life — it’s as if you’re as close as sitting at coffee with her listening to her pour out her woes. Later, in the wrenching song “The Break,” she agonizes over the origin of her condition, asking what would happen if it was “never in my brain, or in my blood, but in my soul?” That anxiety in Parrett’s characterization is low-grade but palpable throughout.
Taylor Abels — Joel’s real-life daughter — soars in her role as Natalie, the daughter. Her character is a complicated swirl: frustration at her mother’s condition, resignation that things won’t change, sadness that her childhood couldn’t be more “normal,” aloofness at the woes of her parents. And, more subtly, fear that she herself could be genetically disposed toward mental illness.
Daniel Rodriguez, in a pivotal role as the son, brings stellar vocals and a cocky confidence to his character — and a surly annoyance as that confidence fades. (His duet “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” with Taylor Abels is a high point.) Adam Schroeder, who plays two of Diana’s doctors, is strong, bringing a swagger and comic crispness to his portrayal.
As Henry, Natalie’s laidback stoner boyfriend, Aaron Bollinger delivers some nice vocals. But his stage presence is too laid-back — not emphatic enough — both in terms of the physicality of the role and Bollinger’s confidence on stage. (I get that his character is a slouchy sort, but the role calls for an intensity to that slouching — there’s a passiveness to Bollinger that is distracting.) When he and Taylor Abels are together, they seem mismatched in terms of the tone and tenor of the production.
The rest of the show, however, brims with confidence, from Kris Cadieux’s stylish minimalist wooden unit set depicting the interior of Diana’s house — a compact yet expansive design that captures the rock-opera intensity of the show — to Terry Lewis’ vocal coaching. Stephanie Bradshaw’s costumes and Ben Holley’s precise lighting design add to the effect. Musical director Anthony Taylor gives us a seamless live-music experience, with his brash little band bringing Tom Kitt’s score to life with a raucous precision.
StageWorks Fresno has definitively enriched the Fresno theater scene in its few short years on the scene. It hasn’t been afraid to tackle big, ambitious projects such as “The Light in the Piazza” and “Ragtime.” The company might not have had the budgets to stage extravagant productions of both, but the inherent theatricality was there in abundance. (Especially with “Piazza,” still a fond memory for me.)
But with more intimate shows such as “[title of show]” and now “Next to Normal,” the company delivers an experience that, as I say, raises the bar. This production is one you don’t want to miss.