Monday, February 4, 2013

Next to Normal at Capital Playhouse

From left: Bruce Haasl, Lars Foster-Jorgensen, Kurt Raimer, Jana Tyrrell and Gordon Shaughnessy. Photo by Dennis Kurtz
I was not prepared for Next to Normal. Perhaps I should have been. I had read about it and even listened to the Broadway cast album before going to the theater. But nothing can prepare you for something like this. This is an astounding play, from the opening numbers—the prelude in which we find the Goodman family unable to sleep in the pre-dawn hours of night and “Just Another Day,” a song that establishes Diana (Jana Tyrrell, wife of director Brian Tyrrell) and her family as anything but a normal family—to the final uplifting song that offers hope but no easy resolutions.
Diana has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her husband, Dan (Kurt Raimer) is, in Diana’s words, boring; but he steadfastly loves and supports her through hell. Their teenage daughter, Natalie (Erin Snodgrass) is a smart over-achiever on the verge of entering a world of romance, drugs, and a rocking club scene. The Goodman’s son, Gabe (Lars Foster-Jorgensen) is absent in ways that only gradually come clear. Also making an appearance in their fucked-up lives are Bruce Haasl as Diana’s doctor and Gordon Shaughnessy as Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry, a sweet and devoted stoner kid.
I used the term “fucked-up” because that is the word used in the play—often and most emphatically by Natalie.
Kurt Raimer and Jana Tyrrell. Photo by Dennis Kurts.
Interestingly, the director wrote in the program a couple of the things I thought about: first that Next to Normal has a lot in common with Rent—both are hard-hitting, uncompromising looks at contemporary life done rock-opera style—and second that it is nothing like what many theatergoers think of when hearing the word “musical.” What Tyrrell wrote was: “…its gritty realism more closely resembles the works of playwrights like Miller, O’Neill and Williams than it does Sondheim, Schwartz or Rogers and Hammerstein. It’s not a musical with huge production numbers of spell-binding spectacle but rather heartfelt, truthful, face-to-face interactions that are startlingly moving.”
In that opening number the family appears typical and likeable as they begin “Just Another Day,” but as the song progresses Diana becomes increasingly manic and bizarre, and her husband and children are horrified. Dan and Diana both begin to wonder if it’s just her or if maybe there’s something else wrong, as expressed in the song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I.” From there the drama becomes more and more intense as Diana’s mind deteriorates, in large part thanks to the ineffectiveness of her doctor.
The acting throughout is excellent. If it were a movie both Tyrrells would surely be up for an Academy Award. Jana Tyrrell is so convincingly manic/depressive that you might think she has spent time in a mental hospital studying for the part. Her singing is quite strong—mellow and full bodied.
Haasl does his usual fine job. As the doctor he seems arrogant and self-contained, and on the hard rocking song “Doctor Rock” he switches gears with lightning speed to depict the mad doctor Diana fears he might be on her first session with him. He electrifies the stage on this song.
In addition to being a fine actor and singer Haasl is the Capital Playhouse resident set designer, and he outdid himself on this one with a set that is stark and stunning with a house-shaped wall of white slats against black curtains and an industrial riser. Everything is in black and white except for turquoise kitchen chairs and painted riser edges that match the chairs. The stark white on everything else allows for outstanding lighting effects from light designer Matt Lawrence and light board operator Kris Mann.
Next to Normal was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009 and won three: Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is the finest show I’ve seen at Capital Playhouse since Rent in 2010. Bravo, CPH! Folks, don’t miss this one!
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 17
Where: Capital Playhouse: 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Tickets: $28-39
More information: 360-943-2744,

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