Thursday, June 07, 2012

Next to Normal (Stages Rep, Houston)

Sometimes it's possible to confuse an event and a show, and it is only when the event disappears that the show's full merits can be judged. Take The Lion King. Would it have run for more than 15 minutes without Julie Taymor's brilliance? It is the event rather than the show that is spectacular.

Seeing Next to Normal starring Alice Ripley was an event, every time. Her acolytes filled the front row and mobbed the stage door, and her performance was a force of nature, the perfect match of performer and character. Plus, any Broadway production is to some extent an event due to the gorgeous theatres, top-notch technical aspects, and shocking prices. For these reasons, and the fact that I love Next to Normal, I was excited to get to see a regional production at the Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, Texas. I wondered: What would Next to Normal the show be without Next to Normal the event?


Well-directed and amusingly choreographed by Melissa Rain Anderson, this Next to Normal is more of an ensemble piece than it was on Broadway. Which is not to say that it doesn't have a strong actor playing Diana, the mother with bipolar disorder who "just couldn't cope." In fact, Happy McPartlin gives a touching, complex, smart performance in a challenging role, and she sings it well. It's not a star turn, and that's okay. Her regular-person-ness brings a deep sense of the quotidian wear-and-tear of bipolar disorder to the show. The rest of the cast is also strong, including Brad Goertz as Diana's long-suffering husband, Tyler Berry Lewis as her much-loved son; Rebekah Stevens as her neglected daughter Natalie; Mark Ivy as Natalie's boyfriend; and Kregg Daily as different doctors who try to help Diana. They too are more "regular people" than the Broadway cast was, and again that is a strength.

Interestingly enough, few of the jokes in Next to Normal received laughs in this production; while the show is far from a comedy, it has many (potentially?) funny moments. Also, few of the songs received applause, although the curtain calls revealed that the audience was quite enthusiastic. (McPartlin does not receive a solo bow, unfortunately. She deserves one.)

The technical aspects of this production reveal some of the limits of smaller theatres. The space has no room for the second floor of the family's house, let alone the third. The sound is a little muddy. The lighting is less than ideal. But none of this matters.

What does matter is that this production brings to vivid life a difficult, sad, and amazing piece of theatre.

(full price tickets [$38ish] seventh row [the last row] center)

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