There’s nothing new about dramatic plots revolving around families with problems, but how often do you see such angst set to music? Out of the Box Theatre Company caps off its third season with Next to Normal, by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, continuing in its tradition of edgy, socially-relevant musical theater.
And this one is a doozy. Mom Diana (Deborah Bertling) is attempting to cope with mental illness by taking a potpourri of pills, teen daughter Natalie (Taylor Courtney) is an overachiever with a chip on her shoulder, dad Dan (Matthew Wiedle) is trying his best to act like everything is normal, and their son Gabe (Connor Gould) just wants to be noticed.
This tight ensemble cast is excellent, under the fine direction of the company’s artistic director, Samantha Eve. Bertling hits just the right notes of vulnerability and rage as a woman fighting for her sanity, while Wiedle aptly portrays someone walking the line between keeping it together on the surface and coming to terms with his inner pain. Courtney is cracklingly energetic but in a tightly coiled manner, as if she could go off at any time. Gould projects raw emotion, veering between heartache and triumph.
Christopher Lee Short is solid in the dual role of two doctors who attempt to help Diana with her problems, and Skyler Jones is sweet and sincere as Henry, the suitor trying to find a way past Natalie’s hard outer shell.
The rock musical score conveys the intricacies of this difficult family situation surprisingly well. The five-piece onstage band, directed by John Douglas, who also plays keyboards, provides a polished sound achieved only with live music. The music threatens to overpower the vocals once in awhile, but for the most part it works out well, as the cast all are strong singers.
The set, by Theodore Michael Dolas, is an ingenious three-level creation suggestive in shape of a home, but also industrial and abstract. Suitably spare kitchen and living room sets are rolled forward for use and pushed back to create space downstage.
This Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning musical debuted on Broadway in 2009. The New York Times described it as “much more than a feel-good musical; it is a feel-everything musical.” This is apt — a startling twist in the first act is heart-wrenching, and the moments of hope that push through the cracks shine brightly against a dark backdrop. The laughs that come from time to time are welcome relief from the tension of the subject matter.
If you are up for a trip through the wringer with this normal family as they bare their souls before you, don’t miss this spectacular piece of theater. It is well worth the journey.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.