Entertainment, Lifestyle

Not your ‘Normal’ theater experience

PHOTO COURTESY OF SETH ALBAUM, UPSIDE MEDIA
“Next to Normal” is at LynnArts Black Box Theatre through June 17.

LYNN — Arts After Hours kicks off its seventh season with “Next to Normal,” a powerful Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical dealing with mental illness and the ripple effect it has on family members.

The Goodmans appear to be a normal family. Dan (Corey Jackson) is a stoic, hard-working mensch. Natalie (Siobhan Carroll) and Gabe (Nicholas Fernandez) seem to be average kids, dealing with the typical crises of teenagedom. Diana (Katie Pickett) appears to be an ordinary stay-at-home mom … until we see her making Wonder Bread sandwiches on the kitchen floor.

Diana is bipolar and psychotic. Dan does his best to humor his wife and avoid situations that might erupt in conflict. He says he’s living on a latte and a prayer. Brainiac Natalie puts all her energy into schoolwork and practicing Mozart on the piano. Gabe seems to be the most well-adjusted of the bunch, full of upbeat energy and optimism.

The Goodman household is in constant chaos and turmoil while doctors treat Diana, first with a Tupperware container stuffed with prescription meds, then via psychoanalysis, hypnotism and harsher measures.

Adrienne Boris directs this ambitious, challenging project with a deft touch, adding subtle humor when it is most needed. The intimate, claustrophobic LynnArts Black Box space amps up the anxiety level.

The audience at Sunday’s matinee performance was fully engaged. An unexpected plot twist midway through Act I drew gasps. Cathartic tears were shed by attendees and actors alike while Diana and her family tried to claw their way out of the darkness.

The cast, all blessed with wondrous voices, is uniformly excellent.

Pickett is solid, never resorting to the cartoonish, bug-eyed, deranged bipolar stereotype often employed. Her Diana is a sympathetic character; you ache along with her as she struggles to get well. Her vocal during the quiet, pleading “I Miss the Mountains” is stunning.

Jackson, co-founder and managing director of Arts After Hours, hasn’t performed on this stage since the company’s inaugural season. He’s the real deal. His Dan is a complicated guy, in constant pain, crippled by loneliness and powerless (or unwilling) to rock the boat to foment change. It’s heartbreaking as he remembers the happier days when he and Diana were young and in love. Behind that stoicism is a man ready to explode.

Carroll’s performance might be the most nuanced, the best of all. Her “invisible” Natalie dances with anger throughout, as she evolves from the good girl seeking just a little bit of love, affection and recognition, to the young woman who embarks on her first romance and then embraces risky behavior to escape her unhappiness. She and Pickett shine during their daughter/mother scene together late in Act II.

Matthew Corr excels as Henry, the stoner/slacker whose unrequited love for Natalie is finally returned. He and Carroll share great chemistry, especially when they see each other before a school dance, she wearing an uncharacteristic wide smile and a pretty blue dress and he without his omnipresent stocking hat. His bong-sucking dude turns out to be the sanest of all, but you wonder if he and Natalie are headed toward the same Dan/Diana challenges as their relationship evolves.

Fernandez’s vocals are sturdy throughout. He brings a welcome energetic spark to every scene he’s in.

Alex Grover, the choral director at Danvers High School and a frequent performer with Marblehead Little Theatre and other local companies, is also fine in two roles as Diana’s pharmacologist and psychiatrist. His masochism tango with Pickett is a hoot.

It’s remarkable the cast is able to perform this emotions-packed show twice on Sundays, with just a 90-minute break.

Musical direction by Bethany Aiken is splendid, though the “band” occasionally overpowers the singers, particularly during the faster numbers. As stage manager, Cassandra Murkison overcomes the challenges presented by keeping the cast of six in everybody’s sightlines on the small, multi-tiered set.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly one of every five adults in America (48.3 million) suffers from some form of mental illness. Its impact on loved ones affects millions more.

“Next to Normal” stays with you long after the show’s over. It’s at LynnArts Black Box Theatre through June 17. The June 11 matinee performance will include a discussion with Dr. Mark Alexakos, chief Behavioral Health officer for Lynn Community Health Center. For ticket information, go to www.artsafterhours.com.

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