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Arts & Culture

Woodlawn tackles mental health with rule-breaking, Pulitzer-winning 'Next to Normal'

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Josh Harris, Beth Erwin, and Matthew Lieber in Next to Normal.

It's next-to-impossible to categorize Next to Normal, but here's a shot: it's a cross between a high-energy rock concert and op-ed column on psychopharmacology. If that seems an awkward hybrid, the show nevertheless boasts friends in high places: the musical was a surprise winner for a 2010 Pulitzer Prize, and the Woodlawn is to be commended for programming this difficult work, particularly during the summer. (Its competition are revivals of Hairspray and Hello, Dolly! I can't even invent juxtapositions like that.)

My last two visits to the Woodlawn were for the productions of J. C. Rocks! and The Cure, and I'm happy to report that Next to Normal, helmed by new artistic director Gregory Hinojosa, boasts production values and performances well above what I've observed there in the past. It now strikes me as solid community theater with tantalizing glimpses — as through parting clouds — of what a rejuvenated Woodlawn might become.

At the very least, the production looks swell. Kurt Wehner's clever, rectilinear set features a house as square as its inhabitants: a mom, dad, daughter, son, all arranged in perfect, Brady Bunch symmetry. Except, of course, that this family's nowhere next to normal: Diana, the mom, has been fighting bipolar disorder for years, and a first-act meltdown ushers us into the world of mental-health treatment, administered by the suspiciously named Drs. Fine and Madden (both roles played well, and with obvious relish, by Robby Vance). Meanwhile, the crisis in Diana's family grows ever more dire, threatening to disrupt even the courtship of daughter Natalie (NESA sophomore Conley Wehner) and beau Henry (Ben Carlee). A pulsing, psychedelic lighting design (good work by Chris Muenchow) illuminates this family's extraordinary path into an extraordinary inner darkness.

The evening is better sung than staged, and director Hinojosa has some trouble with fluidity; too many moments are played with actors standing around stiff-armed, either singing stiffly to the audience or stiffly to each other. (This is particularly true of Josh Harris' Dad.) As Diana, Beth Erwin shows considerable chops (and very considerable stamina), with a rich voice that can belt its way through Brian Yorkey and Thomas Kitt's electric score. ("I Miss the Mountains" — an ode to "normal" emotional ups and downs — is a highlight.) The stand-out of the evening, however, is Erwin's creepy pas de deux with son Gabe (an excellent Matthew Lieber), a silver-tongued rogue who invites his mom to a dance with death: a lilting two-step on the edge of an emotional precipice. ("There's a world where the sun shines each day," he croons.

Unfortunately, that's metaphor, not Maui.) Hector Serna helms a strong six-piece live band — it's nice to see resources poured into this essential component of any musical.

At a bit over two hours, the show might have made a more compelling one act; there's a certain flatness to the score and the plot in the second act. (It would be helpful if Hinojosa had further emphasized the music's occasional tonal variations — the ironic glee of "It's Gonna Be Good," for instance.) And Hinojosa's reliance on pantomime is unfortunate in a musical that concerns (among other things) the difference between the real and the hallucinated: Diana's opening breakdown — in which she manically prepares sandwiches — is less effective when the props are imaginary. The opening of the second act — a complex marriage of electro-shock therapy and disco (!) — was marred on opening night by sound imbalance and some spotty cues.

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