After attending the Actors' Playhouse premiere of Next to Normal at the Miracle Theatre, I can see why the musical won the Pulitzer for drama in 2010. The writing of the show is magnificent; every interaction and every word either serves the purpose of developing the plot, yanking deftly at heart strings, or both.
In daring to put the wrenching pain of a family that struggles with mental illness into a rock musical, I can also see how the play earned three Tony Awards and nine nominations for its Broadway run.
Yes, the Actors' Playhouse production of the play was enough to give me an inkling of how great this play potentially could have been. Unfortunately, it took a lot of imagining for me to get to that understanding. Last night's production had major sound issues and other glaring inconsistencies through which Tom Kitts' and Brian Yorkey's celebrated score struggled to shine.
The play centers on Diana (Jodie Langel), the matriarch of a modern American family, and her 16-year battle with bipolar disorder and many of its devilish cousins. Her husband Dan (Mark Sanders) is an adoring (read: co-dependent) partner, totally dedicated to his wife regardless of her incessant mood swings, delusional episodes, and pharmaceutically malleable personality.
Natalie (Sarah Amengual) is the overlooked overachiever, every perfect grade and every perfectly played sonata an undelivered S.O.S. pleading for attention from Mom. And Gabe (Eddy Rioseco) is the mysterious and somewhat menacing son at the root of most of the family's problems.
Langel's performance was outstanding throughout - the caliber you would expect from an actress and songstress who played both Cosette and Eponine in Broadway's Les Miserables. Nick Duckart, who played two of Diana's doctors, also gave a consistently sure-footed performance. And especially in the second act, Amengual's powerful voice cut through the theater with soulful resonance.
The fact that these actors succeeded in this production should earn them whatever prize contestants win at the end of the Survivor competitions, because the musical direction of this show was like jungle rule. In many places, the timing was off, the actors' voices flying away from the band like each was pacing to an entirely different metronome. At other times, the band was too loud, the actors' words melting into lyrical mud puddles on stage. Later, the accompaniment seemed to bottom out, giving the vocals a naked, awkward sound. This is all very bad in a show where 95% of the script is sung.
Also, the show is a rock opera. Shouldn't it rock, at least a little bit? In this production, the drums were buried and there was not an electric guitar in sight. The only real hints of rock we were allowed came during one of the few truly funny scenes of the play where delusional Diana thinks her new psychiatrist Dr. Madden (Duckart) is a scary rock star. I watched some clips from other productions on YouTube just to be sure I'm not crazy, and sure enough, the show works a thousand times better with strong instrumental backup.
The lack of decisive musical direction might explain why I perceived a lack of confidence from several of the supporting cast members. Voices frequently faltered and pitches were sometimes missed. In songs where the actors' voices were supposed to overlap in harmony and rising tension, where you were supposed to be able to choose at any moment which crystal clear message to tune your ear to, instead all of the words jumbled together and were lost.
Some of the audio problems seemed to have been improved upon for the second act, and two of the final scenes were so beautifully done that mascara-streaked tears spilled down my face in two wet charcoal streams. Overall though, this show could use some major tightening up.
It still runs for another four weeks. With all the talent the Actors' Playhouse has managed to line up for this decorated play, and with all that they went through to get the rights to perform it, I hope directors David Arisco and Eric Alsford are able to iron out the problems and do this play justice.
Next to Normal runs through February 12 at the Miracle Theatre. Tickets cost $15 to $48. Go to actorsplayhouse.org or call 305-444-9293.