- Reporters Desk
By John Farrell, Curtain Call Writer
Rock operas frequently have heart, but it is unusual for one to have heart and speak literal truth as well — the genre is usually too high-strung for that.
Cal Rep’s Next to Normal, playing at the Royal Theater aboard RMS Queen Mary, is the refreshing exception to that rule. True, it is chock-full of plangent and often appealing songs, but it is also a rock-ribbed look at a reality that many other plays about similar subjects don’t take seriously enough.
That’s the human, everyday story of mental illness — serious mental illness — and it’s slowly corroding effect on one family. That’s why the musical, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, won the Pulitzer Prize several years back.
Next to Normal tells the story of the Goodman family. Diana Goodman (Karole Foreman) slowly, perhaps inevitably, slides into a deep bipolar depression. The Goodman family is seemingly normal. Husband Dan (Jeff Paul), daughter Natalie (Maddie Larson) and son Gabe (Alexander Pimentel) all are reliable and well-grounded individuals, at first. But then, you discover that Gabe, 18, is actually a figment of his mother’s troubled imagination. He died as a baby, when he was just 8 months old. Diana has had 15 years of therapy. She eventually undergoes electro-convulsive therapy. The result is that she doesn’t remember her family or life.
This is all told with brilliant, electric music, plenty of songs and a set that features a huge tree that serves as bedroom, dining room and more. Natalie finds a boyfriend during the story, Henry (M). Part of the musical’s touching nature is how Henry supports Natalie as her mother implodes.
The important thing about this musical is its matter-of-fact treatment of the situation. Foreman almost never is called on to overreact. Indeed her complacent manner makes the story all the more affecting. She is not a victim, not a crazy woman, but just a plain person with a disease that probably can’t be cured. Directed by Joanne Gordon, it is musical and a little clinical.
Tickets are $25, and $20 for students, seniors and members of the military. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., through May 10.