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Sunday, October 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Next to Normal’ a challenging evening of theater

The Goodmans, the family at the center of “Next to Normal,” are doing their best to appear like the suburban ideal, that of white picket fences, Saturday bake sales and PTA meetings. But like all things that seem too good to be true, the Goodmans’ Cheshire grins are merely defense mechanisms. We soon learn that their pursuit of happiness is a daily struggle.

“Next to Normal,” which continues its run at the Bing Crosby Theater through the weekend, is as unconventional as its characters: It’s an edgy, occasionally bracing rock opera about one woman’s struggle with bipolar disorder and how her manic episodes send ripples through her household. That description might make the show sound like some kind of postmodern goof – you may wonder how such sensitive material could ever benefit from flashy theatricality – but the Pulitzer Prize-winning show is as stylistically risky as it is emotionally bruising.

As the show begins, wife and mother Diana Goodman (played here by Alyssa Day) feels her bipolar symptoms intensifying: She can’t sleep, she drifts in and out of cognizance, she finds herself making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. Her husband Dan (Nicholas Bailey) would rather grin and bear his wife’s erratic behavior than confront it head-on. Their overachieving teen daughter Natalie (Caitlin Duffey) is mortified by her family, seeking solace from a bookish stoner named Henry (Evan Figuracion).

Diana’s doctor (Daniel McKeever) decides to tweak her dosages, which nullifies her symptoms but leaves her in a mental fog. The sudden inability to feel anything at all causes even more distress (“I miss the dizzy heights,” she sings, “all the manic, magic days and the dark, depressing nights”), and her older son Gabe (Cody Bray) encourages her to flush her medications down the toilet. But a suicide attempt leads to murmurings of electroconvulsive therapy sessions, which forces Dan to finally address his wife’s illness.

Merely reciting the ABCs of “Next to Normal” might inspire memories of those paint-by-numbers, made-for-TV movies of the week. But the show, perceptively written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, avoids cheap melodrama, and it treats its big issues like emotional obstacles rather than convenient plot points. This is a complicated drama about complicated people, and Kitt and Yorkey are careful to explore the inner workings of their characters without merely psychoanalyzing them from a distance.

“Next to Normal” serves as the first collaboration between the Modern Theater and Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, and George Green and Jadd Davis – the artistic directors of those two organizations – are at the helm of the show. I certainly hope this doesn’t represent their only team-up: This show might not have the million-dollar budget of a major touring production, but it’s just as polished, and the actors seem at ease with the difficult material.

This is not, however, the first time “Next to Normal” has been produced locally. Spokane Civic Theatre staged the show in 2013, and I praised it quite highly at the time. This production isn’t any better or worse than the Civic’s – I think it’s the kind of story that will always pack a wallop if it’s treated with enough care – but it does have the added benefit of a larger stage and a state of the art sound system.

Yorkey’s lyrics are dense and playful, essentially functioning as dialogue, so it’s important that we hear every word. Kitt’s score swings wildly from flowery ballads to rock numbers and back again. Individual songs ebb and flow and dissolve into one another, a canny maneuver that subtly mirrors Diana’s unpredictable mental state. These are tricky tunes, but Davis and Green have assembled some staggering vocal talent.

There are no weak links in this cast, and each of the six actors has moments, some showy and some delicate, that resonate with us: McKeever’s buttoned-up doctor slipping into the guise of a preening rock ’n’ roller; Figuracion and Duffey opening up to one another on their first date; Bray and Bailey confronting long-buried guilt in the show’s closing moments. But it’s Day’s sensitive performance that truly anchors the story, and she allows us to peer into Diana’s psyche without ever letting the symptoms define the character.

It’s true that “Next to Normal” is not a breezy evening of theater. It’s appropriately grueling, a story of peaks and plateaus that ends before all of its characters can find solace. But it also buzzes with energy and vitality, and it’s both emotionally and intellectually rewarding to watch a show that’s so confident in its intentions. You have four more chances to see this production, and I strongly recommend that you do.

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