One of the most interesting things about the Jewel Theatre Company is its choice of material. Sure, they produce their share of the classics—Harold Pinter, Athol Fugard, Noel Coward—but Artistic Director Julie James also has a sharp eye for innovative work less familiar to local audiences.
Case in point: Next To Normal, the exhilarating second production in JTC’s 12th season. This show also marks the company’s first anniversary in its new space, the Colligan Theater at the Tannery (where they opened last November with Guys and Dolls). Next To Normal is also a musical, but there’s nothing old school about it. Debuting on Broadway in 2009, the show won a couple of Tonys, along with a Pulitzer Prize, for its audacious depiction of a wife and mother with bipolar disorder whose struggles to cope with her husband, her family, and herself are surprisingly universal.
With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this is not the kind of musical that comes with show tunes and a chorus line. It’s more like a rock operetta, with almost non-stop music provided in this production by an onstage jazz-rock combo (ably led by keyboardist Katie Coleman) and a cast of six terrific singers. The music ranges from poetic to powerhouse, the lyrics are insightful, and the singers perform in an endlessly inventive series of duets, quartets, and counterpoints.
The story revolves around Diana (Lee Ann Payne), a suburban housewife struggling to keep herself together in order to hold her family together. Husband Dan (Christopher Reber) has stuck with her through all the peaks and valleys of her illness. Son Gabe (the outstanding Coleton Schmitto) is the apple of his mother’s eye. Teenage daughter Natalie (a poignant, affecting Brittany Law), a scholastic overachiever, also plays keyboard, embracing the classical precision of Mozart as an antidote to the chaos at home.
In the course of the story, Natalie warily allows a new boyfriend, Henry (affable Ryland Gordon), into her carefully sealed-up life. Family secrets are revealed, while Diana sinks into a low period, and changes her meds and her doctors (both played by Nick Gallego, one white-coated and avuncular; the other described as a “rock star” in his field, who appears to Diana strutting and wailing, bathed in a neon spotlight.)
Even in this cast of excellent singers, special kudos go to Schmitto. A dynamic performer onstage, he not only brings an authoritative edge to his rock singing, but also contributes beautiful harmonies in the multi-part vocal arrangements, while his sweet falsetto is used to very tender effect in the ballads.
The lyrics are smart and the music propulsive. A recurring theme is presence, in life and in one’s own self, in songs like “He’s Not Here,” “Wish I Were Here” and Schmitto’s show-stopping “I’m Alive.” “Wish I Were Here” is sung by Diana, watching from above (on Kent Dorsey’s spare, effective double-decker set), while doctors perform ECT (it used to be called shock therapy) on her sedated body. Diana’s very funny pre-op number, “Didn’t I See This Movie?,” manages to reference Sylvia Plath, Frances Farmer, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
As Diana, Payne sings up a storm (even when her mic temporarily failed her during one song on opening night); she captures Diana’s wry wit, and articulates the emotional terrain of each number. Reber’s rumpled, loyal Dan, trying to do his best, partners with her beautifully. Married in real life, they last appeared onstage together for JTC in the fabulous film noir musical Gunmetal Blues. (He was the gumshoe; she was the blonde who popped up in all the female roles.)
James (who also directs) keeps the action brisk and the audience engaged. The exuberance of this production is what live theater is all about.
The Jewel Theatre Company production of ‘Next To Normal’ plays at the Colligan Theater in the Tannery through Dec. 11. Call 425-7506, or visit jeweltheatre.net.