More than anything, productions of “Next to Normal,” a 2009 musical depicting mental illness, have to humanize the show’s characters so their mutual and individual plights become the focus.
Stray too far from the people affected by one family member’s multiple psychotic maladies, and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s piece flirts dangerously with becoming gimmicky and interesting solely because of its highly dramatic situation. Delve closely into the struggles and ramifications of the afflicted and the people nearest to her, and “Next to Normal” blossoms into a moving, intricate study of how disease governs lives and how emotions can swing swiftly between hope and hopelessness.
In the eight productions of “Next to Normal” I’ve seen, there’s always one scene that indicates which way this director-dependent show will go.
In Keith Baker’s touchingly engrossing production for Bristol Riverside Theatre, this telling moment comes in an unusual, often overlooked place. Diana (Donna Vivino), coping with the latest of 16 years of breakdowns, consults her neurological psychiatrist (Scott Greer), who suggests hypnotherapy. Diana initially rejects it but is soon led to speaking wistfully about her past and facing some of the dilemmas that plague her present. Following this cauterizing non-musical passage, Diana returns home, finds a memento, and continues the spell of the hypnosis scene with a song, “I Dreamed a Dance.”
Vivino has a beautiful, expressive voice that takes you past a lyric to the core of the character singing. In this instance, the loveliness of Vivino’s phrasing and the sentiment in the song render Diana’s personal quandaries and her life in general. It is with sudden sincerity that Diana forges a bond with her doctor and a strong relationship with the audience.
This sequence takes place about two-thirds into the first act. Until then, Baker’s production held attention and made important points clear. It never slid into the realm of gimmick, but it played like a standard musical. It kept a jaunty balance between entertainment and storytelling but didn’t find “Next to Normal’s” rich depth.
Vivino and Greer combine to make the hypnosis sequence profound. And “I Dreamed a Dance,” sung simply and hauntingly, changed the tone of the production for the better. For the rest of the show sequences, especially tension-fraught passages in which characters replace politeness with honesty, had more dramatic strength. “Next to Normal” took on more importance. It became more involving. Diana became a fuller human being.
The deeper understanding of and regard for Diana spreads to the members of her family. Baker and choreographer Elena Camp keep “Next to Normal” on a high musical plane, but the play underneath becomes dominant and makes this production more resonant, vivid, and powerful.
Yorkey’s plot involves a secret that informs the entire show, but especially the first quarter, and I, a notorious plot spoiler, will not give it away. Suffice it to say Baker’s treatment of this “reveal” is masterful. Had I not known the gambit, I would have been taken by surprise.
To Baker’s credit, scenes before the cat leaves the bag are handled with such aplomb, the uninitiated would never guess what was coming.
A unique touch is how Baker handles Diana’s children. We are introduced immediately to a son (Liam Snead) and, later, to a daughter (Laura Giknis). Both are affected by Diana’s illness, but most productions concentrate on the son, who has some stellar numbers that Snead, with a great assist by Camp, makes immediate and exciting.
Baker spends more time developing the daughter, Natalie, putting her on almost an equal footing with Diana in telling her story. Giknis seizes the opportunity and creates a multi-faceted, endlessly interesting Natalie. A sequence in which Diana and Natalie have an unusually calm, everyday mother-daughter conversation benefits greatly from how completely Vivino and Giknis convey the two women.
Baker redirects sympathies in a way that makes more sense given Diana’s household. Having the daughter be sympathetic and the son more like the nemesis he is registers as a smart move.
Sterling voices are part of any Keith Baker production. Vivino can captivate with the range, subtlety, and purity of her voice. Snead puts charge in Gabriel’s rock-like numbers and is stirringly convincing when he performs “I’m Alive” and exudes equal energy in “I Am the One” and “Aftershocks.” Giknis emphasizes the importance of Natalie’s character when she meaningfully relates her family’s pecking order to her boyfriend (Gary Lumpkin) in “Superboy and Invisible Girl.”
Danny Vaccaro is affecting as the husband and father who holds a full-time job while working to hold his family together. He conveys dedication while keeping his character’s frustration and disappointment in enough view that you see its toll. Lumpkin is sweetly supportive and refreshingly candid as Natalie’s friend.
Tom Kitt’s music is rooted in rock but has range and includes some wonderful numbers such as “I Miss the Mountains” and “I Dreamed a Dance.” Yorkey’s lyrics zing with literacy and wit. His book, when presented with Baker’s accent toward characters, explores difficult subjects with clarity and intelligence. His ending is problematic, too neat and with a twist that shocks but evokes deserved groans for its laziness and coyness.
The designers — Roman Tatarowicz (set), Linda B. Stockton (costumes), Ryan O’Gara (lighting), and Brett Pearson (lighting) all do a fine job.
Next to Normal, Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Through Sunday, November 24, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m. and Sunday, 3 p.m. $48 to $55. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.