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'Next to Normal' is a powerful tearjerker

Musical explores the family impact of mental illness

Inexplicably, I've somehow never reviewed or even seen a Broadway by the Bay production until now, but it seems I've picked a fine time to start, based on its riveting production of the Pulitzer-winning musical "Next to Normal."

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's show is a powerful, harrowing look at the damage wrought on all the members of a "normal" suburban American family -- the Goodmans -- by mental illness, in this case the bipolar disorder and a host of other symptoms of mother/wife Diana (Caitlin McGinty). When she's up, gliding on the highs of a manic episode, she's a glorious whirlwind of nervous action and positivity. When she's down, plummeting into the depths of depression, she's suicidal and delusional. When she's prescribed a plethora of medication, the doctors call her "stable," but she feels like a zombie, devoid of feeling, in a haze and utterly unlike her charismatic self.

Her teen daughter, Natalie (Mackenzie Cala), is a tightly wound, high-achieving student seemingly on the verge of a breakdown of her own, embarrassed by her mother (and afraid of becoming her -- the disorder may run in the family), but also wounded to the core by a lifetime of being neglected and overshadowed by Diana's all-consuming love for her firstborn son, the mischievous and mysterious Gabe (Sean Okuniewicz). Long-suffering, mild-mannered and somewhat-hapless husband, Don (Joe Hudelson), wants his wife to regain her health (he misses the vivacious, adventurous girl he married but would settle for boring and "normal"). He has his own issues, including some deep denial of the tragedy that exacerbated Diana's condition years earlier and continues to haunt the family (for more about that plot point, you'll have to see the show yourself).

Rounding out the cast is Henry (Joey Pisacane), a sweet, jazz-loving teen stoner who sees Natalie for who she is and offers her the love and support she desperately needs, and Brendan Quirk, who plays both of Diana's doctors: the inscrutable automaton who peddles pills and the "rock star" therapist who encourages her to try everything from hypnosis to electroshock therapy.

The show does not flinch from demonstrating the suffering of all the characters. We feel the justifiable pain and frustration of Don and Natalie, but, since so much of "Next to Normal" comes from Diana's perspective, we also fully empathize with her struggle, and her desire not to lose herself completely. The stage belongs to McGinty: As Diana, she's radiant and heartbreaking, with a beautiful singing voice. (She is a bit too young to be a woman with teenage children, though, even if the character did get pregnant in college. Mother and kids don't seem to be convincingly far apart in age.)

While the experience of watching "Next to Normal" is often uncomfortable, it's also a pleasure, thanks to the quality of the production and the performances, and the high-energy, soaring music. Stylistically (and in some ways, thematically), it's reminiscent of The Who's "Tommy," with its rock-opera sound, especially in Okuniewicz's numbers. When the cast members harmonize together, the effect is thrilling.

Broadway by the Bay is aptly named, as not only does the company offer the musicals of the Great White Way, it's also literally on Broadway -- the Redwood City version -- housed in the palatial splendor of the 1929-built Fox Theatre.

Kelly James Tighe has designed a marvelous set: the stylish, stylized interior of a modern home befitting a family of architects (the Goodmans met while studying architecture as undergrads and designed their home themselves). One of my favorite aspects of the show was actually the lighting design by Michael Oesch. The set's tall white shelves are all illuminated by lighting that changes color frequently throughout the performances, in accordance with the moods of the scene. Sometimes, the lights even pulse in rhythm with the music, creating the feeling that the entire house itself is alive with the family's intense energy.

The production is, fittingly, a family affair, with Broadway by the Bay's Executive Artistic Director Alicia Jeffrey handling musical direction and her husband, Jasen Jeffrey, serving as director. They've also partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of San Mateo County, which has included in the program support and contact information for individuals and families dealing with mental illness.

I saw a lot of puffy, red eyes upon leaving the theater. It's a bold choice for Broadway by the Bay, which most often seems to offer mass-appeal, feel-good musicals (this show was instead described by the New York Times as a "feel-everything" musical). There's an attempt at an uplifting finale, which struck me as a bit abrupt, although it's understandable to want the show to conclude on a note of hope. It's not hard to imagine Natalie and Henry turning into versions of Diana and Don in their later years, but perhaps they'll have learned better ways of coping. "Next to Normal" doesn't attempt to suggest there are any easy answers or miracle cures, though. The major takeaway, and most memorable lyric, might be Diana's realization that "you don't have to be happy at all to be happy you're alive."

What: "Next to Normal"

Where: Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City

When: Weekends through Aug. 27 (see website for detailed schedule)

Cost: $44-$66

Info: Go to Broadway by the Bay

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