Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bipolar Disorder, the Musical

by Pa Rock
Theatre Fan

If I had done my homework before going to see the Arizona Theatre Company's production of "Next to Normal" last night, if I had pulled up a couple of reviews just to see what the play was about -  I never would have gone to see it.  And that would have been my loss.

"Next to Normal" tackles the very serious topic of mental illness, and, in particular bipolar disorder and the effects that the illness can have on the functioning of a modern American family.  It also looks at the controversial treatment electroconvulsive therapy (once referred to as electro-shock therapy).

As a recent mental health therapist who has worked with people with bipolar disorder and their families, I felt at times like I was back in the clinic at Kadena.  Attending a play with a mental health focus would have not been my idea of a fun evening.  "Next to Normal," however, was anything but a normal theatrical experience, and I found myself captivated by the the musical drama as it played out on stage.

There were six characters in this play, with each being archetypes of people I have actually known:  Diana (Kendra Kassebaum), the mother who was still struggling with the death of her infant son seventeen years earlier, Dan (Joe Cassidy), the long-suffering husband who was totally invested in finding a cure for his wife, though her behaviors were wearing him out, Natalie (Andrea Ross), the teenage daughter who felt trapped in the shadow of her dead older brother, Henry (A.J. Holmes), Natalie's boyfriend who was learning about love and commitment in dysfunctional families, two psychiatrists (both played by Mark Ferrell), who directed Diana's treatment and tried to create and maintain a normalcy in the home, and Gabe (Jonathan Shew), the dead son who had grown and flowered as a young man in the mind of his mother.  The cast was amazingly strong, both in voice and acting ability.

Here is a clue to the quality of writing that went into "Next to Normal":  it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.  Almost all of the dialogue in the play was presented as song lyrics, and the entire cast had astounding voices that powered the story into the theatre rafters.  The book and lyrics were the creation of Brian Yorkey, and Tom Kitt composed the music.

"Next to Normal" is a great play, and the Arizona Theatre Company pulled it off flawlessly!

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