Los Altos Stage Company tackles mental-illness musical

Strong cast sings of familial tragedy in 'Next to Normal'

"I don't need a life that's normal," says Natalie, a troubled teen from a troubled family. "That's way too far away. But, something next to normal."

"Next to Normal" won three Tony Awards in 2009, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. Los Altos Stage Company has installed it in the Bus Barn Theatre through June 22.

The dark musical starts happily enough but quickly takes a turn for the tragic, and there is no happy ending, just a tale of a family struggling with mom's bipolar disorder, depression and psychosis.

Diana, the mother, played well by Jillian Toby-Cummings, is up late, waiting for her son. Her husband Dan, played by the excellent Joey McDaniel, urges her to come to bed soon and before long, Diana tells daughter Natalie (played well by Ella Ruth Francis) that she is going to bed to have sex with her father.

"Yuck," says Natalie.

When Diana and Dan come back the next morning for breakfast, Dan is very happy about the sex but says he's late for work.

"That will teach you to take a whole 10 minutes," Diana says. Dan doesn't quite hear that but the audience does, and it earns a good laugh.

After breakfast, something snaps in Diana, and suddenly she is making lots of sandwiches -- on the floor.

The family is deteriorating. Dan and Diana stop having sex as she slips deeper into madness, although he is endlessly loving and supportive. Natalie takes refuge by playing piano in a school rehearsal room. "Mozart was crazy," she says. "His music is not."

It's in the music room that she meets Henry (played by a very appealing Anthony Stephens), who promises "I'll be 'Perfect for You.'" Also on hand is David Saber, as two different psychotherapists, one of whom becomes a "scary rock star" in Diana's hallucinations.

Mitchell Mosley, who has a very agile voice that can mostly handle Tom Kitt's ridiculously difficult melody lines, has many fine scenes as the son.

It is the excellent cast, and fine direction by Janie Scott, that make this show worth seeing.

McDaniel, especially, is great in this show, and it is illuminating to see him play a serious role, unlike his many magnetic performances as comedic characters in other productions. His voice is powerful and beautiful.

Most of the singing is good in this cast, despite being drastically challenged by Kitt's score, which has next to no memorable melody lines. Just a lot of very difficult vocal demands. Yes, the score won a Tony. There are mysteries in all aspects of life.

Brian Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics for "Next to Normal," which received a lot of praise for tackling the subject of mental illness and what a strain it can be on a family. There are elements to admire, including how the stories of the mother and the father, and the daughter and her boyfriend in some ways follow parallel paths.

Nathanael Card's scenic design spreads all the action over a simple, four-level set, with bits of furniture brought in as needed.

Lauren Bevilacqua is music director for the five-piece rock band that is hidden behind a black scrim. Ken Kilen's sound design loses some voices to the loud musicians.

I found the show's ending for Diana poetic but unrealistic. The show hints at either being a ghost story or Diana's madness transferring to Dan, which I also find unrealistic. It also implies that everything is Dan's fault, which is ridiculous.

Ultimately, I am glad I will never again have to see "Next to Normal," although I will be happy to see any of these performers in other, better shows.

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Next to Normal."

Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.

When: Through June 22 (showtimes vary).

Cost: $20-$38.

Info: Los Altos Stage Company.

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