Next to Normal
Reviewed by Martín Hernández
East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater
Through June 11
A stellar cast, a rousing rock score (music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey), a tight band (musical direction by Marc Macalintal) and director Nancy Keystone’s steady hand make for a refreshing and moving exploration of mental illness. Highly stylized yet intimate in presentation, the show offers sympathy and insight into anyone afflicted by depression, schizophrenia, dementia or other mental maladies, while casting a light on the everyday struggles of their divided families who must cope.
When Diana (Deedee Magno Hall), diagnosed with bipolar disorder sixteen years ago, suffers another intermittent meltdown, loving and long-suffering spouse Dan (Cliffton Hall) knows the drill. As their argue over each other’s sanity, Dan gets her to the shrink, Dr. Fine (a nimble and versatile Randy Guiaya), with whom the delusional Diana engages in a witty, surrealistic pas-de-deux (“Who’s Crazy?/My Pharmacologist and I”).
Abetting her dysfunction is Diana’s adulation of her first-born Gabe (Justin W. Yu), a high school football star, and her neglect of daughter Natalie (Isa Briones), a musically inclined introvert. In their raging sibling rivalry (“Superboy and the Invisible Girl”), Gabe holds the upper hand, serving unnervingly as his mother’s accomplice in more ways than one. As Diana spirals downward, new psychiatrist Madden (Guiaya) proposes a radical solution that may help yet also harm Diana in ways for which the family is not prepared — least of all Natalie, as she embarks on a tentative romance with stoner Henry (a talented Scott Keiji Takeda).
Anchoring the piece is Magno Hall’s exhilarating lead performance, with vocals that alternate between the searing (“You Don’t Know”) and the sublime (“I Miss the Mountains”) and a comic timing that is sheer delight. As Dan, Cliffton Hall holds his own; he and Magno Hall display a genuine chemistry as an embattled couple poignantly trying to connect (“How Could I Ever Forget?”). As Natalie, a woman who may find solace with the affable yet thoughtful Henry Briones deftly blends vulnerability and hardness. Yu presents a guileless Gabe whose seeming manipulations are purely his own mechanisms for coping with a family ravaged by forces it cannot overcome.
Hana Sooyeon Kim’s two story set is imaginatively framed by a series of symbolic lamps representing aspects of the family, while Kim’s video projections and designers Cricket S. Myers (sound) and Karyn D. Lawrence (lighting) expertly augment Keystone’s eerie and dreamlike portrayals of Diana’s increasingly fragmented psyche.
EWP at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Thurs –Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 11. (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwest.org. Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with an intermission.