The Westport Country Playhouse opened its 92nd season with a bang – the Tony Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning show, next to normal. This unique production was supposed to open two years ago, but director and choreographer Marcos Santana has kept his extraordinary vision of an already strong show intact. Santana’s goal was to bring together a top-notch cast of multiracial performers to illuminate the impact of mental illness and its stigma on everyone, including communities of color.
The show features Dar. Lee. To see. Ah. (sometimes billed as Darlesia Cearcy) as Diana, Wilson Jermaine Heredia as her husband, Dan, Ashley LaLonde as their daughter, Natalie, Daniel J. Maldonado as their son, Gabe, Gian Perez as Natalie’s schoolmate and boyfriend, Henry and Katie Thompson as the dual role of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.
The central character, Diana, had been diagnosed with bipolar depression and had never fared well with the many medications prescribed to her by Dr. Madden. It turns out his initial depression was more reactive, rather than just a chemical imbalance in his brain. Diana was pumped up on depression and anxiety pills to the point that she felt numb. “Stable patient,” said his pharmacologist as if it were a success. But her family notices that Diana is still not improving, and it comes to a head when Natalie brings her boyfriend to meet the family. Diana pulls out a birthday cake with a candle on it. Natalie leaves after explaining that the cake is for her brother, Gabe, who died before she was born. Dan is referred to a new psychiatrist, Dr. Fine, who recommends electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Diana suffers from memory loss and Dan helps her get it back, but without mentioning Gabe. The part about her death comes out, and that serves as the catalyst for the next part of Diana’s journey.
Although the subject matter is heavy, the show is still moving and uplifting. There are wonderful parallels in the play, like Dan’s patience and unconditional love for Diana and Henry for Natalie. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are equally empathetic to family members, including Diana’s fantastical version of the dynamic and cultured Gabe. What adds to this phenomenal show is its super talented and charismatic cast. Dar. Lee. To see. Ah., Heredia and Maldonado all have fantastic voices, and LaLonde, Perez and Thompson also have great pipes. They play believable together and give each character their dignity. You root for them, sympathize with them, especially Diana, and never feel sorry for her.
The production features a six-piece live orchestra that is sometimes a bit too loud to hear the actors clearly. Director and choreographer Marcos Santana is a welcome return to the Westport Country Playhouse after directing In the heights and Man from La Mancha a few seasons back. This reviewer hopes to see more of his work in theater. Adam Koch’s stage design is efficient and expansive and beautifully complemented by Cory Pattak’s lighting.
Yorkey and Tom Kitt created this rock musical in 2008, long after breakthrough drugs for mental illness were brought to market. But mental illness has not gone away, and there has always been a mental health gap as it relates to non-white communities in terms of language and cultural differences. This production doubles as a public service due to its imaginative cast. Whether next to normal is cast with albinos or people of different ethnicities, the show remains fresh, strong and timeless. Kitt’s music is still as energetic today as it was over a decade ago.
You don’t want to miss this show, especially this production at the Westport Country Playhouse, where it will run until April 24. The Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court in Westport. For tickets, call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org. Don’t forget to bring your mask and proof of vaccination. Follow Westport Country Playhouse on Twitter @WCPlayhouse and Instagram @wcplayhouse.