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Pop-rock opera hits right note about bipolar patient's distress

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DIANA looks like the typical suburban mom waiting up late for her son to come home, fretting about her teenage daughter guzzling a can of Red Bull to finish her homework and fitting in a little sex with her husband before work the next morning.

Just another crazy day in the Goodman family as Diana hands her departing kids sandwiches and then starts her own manic assembly line of sandwich-making that spills from the kitchen table onto the floor. Her bizarre behaviour episode is witnessed by her horrified family, which is not consoled by her weak explanation she was just trying to get ahead on lunch.

So begins Next to Normal, the pop-rock opera about a haunted housewife's 16-year struggle with bipolar disorder, the increasingly invasive medical efforts to stabilize her unbalanced psyche and the collateral damage her precarious mental health has on her loved ones. The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre season-ender is a raw, affecting depiction of a family in emotional meltdown, heartbreaking and disturbingly true-to-life except perhaps for the final attempt at uplift that doesn't feel earned.

Set designer Douglas Paraschuk has constructed a three-tiered, metal-framed Goodman home that allows the audience to also observe the fried circuitry of Diana's jangled mind. When Diana, achingly played by Jennifer Lyon, is subjected to intense therapy, sections of the house/brain are closed off. Diana's son is the only one on the third storey to reflect his place at the top of her mind.

Composer Tom Kitt's rock music, although not particularly memorable, captures the dramatic mood swings, the anger and pain. With classic Broadway ballads mixed in, Next to Normal is sung in a style that seems perfectly natural.

Lyricist Brian Yorkey leavens the sober goings on with welcome levity, but the opening night audience seemed tentative in reacting to with a laugh. Diana sings a Sound of Music parody of her extensive drug history which ends with, "Ativan calms me when I see the bills, they are a few of my favourite pills."

Diana's downfall is triggered by her rejection of the meds that make her placidly numb and her desire to put the fun back in functional, a yearning perfectly captured by Lyon in the ballad I Miss the Mountains.

That Next to Normal is another play about an imploding family and troubled marriages will remind RMTC patrons of the dark comedy August: Osage County (at the Warehouse earlier this season) set in the three-storey home of the warring Westons. Again a pivotal family dinner scene, this time accompanied by the giddy tune It's Going to Be Good ends traumatically when Diana shows up with a birthday cake when no one is having a birthday. It forces her steadfast husband Dan (Shawn Wright) to commit her to the more serious treatment of electro-convulsive therapy and an uncertain future.

Director Robb Paterson deftly guides the audience through the labyrinth of mental illness with the help of a six-member cast and six-piece band that has no weak links. Lyon is a very empathetic performer, communicating the disconnect between her exterior beauty and the ugly thoughts in Diana's head. Her voice is almost perfectly attuned to her character's distress; at times sad, tough and craving. There are a few moments, however, when a little more fearlessness would be welcome.

Two new-comers to the RMTC stage totally impress as Diana's children. Steffi DiDomenicantonio as neglected, perplexed Natalie taps into all her teenage anger in a sizzling Superboy and the Invisible Girl. Liam Tobin's Gabe steps up with a defiant and driving I'm Alive.

Shawn Wright as saintly stoic Dan does as much as he can with the purposefully bland, ever-hopeful husband that requires abundant falsetto singing. Jonathan Cullen as Natalie's stoner boyfriend also helps with the emotional heavy lifting and is rock-steady. As Diana's clueless doctor, Peter Delwick has his moment as the rock-star psychiatrist.

Like so many of Diana's prescription drugs, Next to Normal will not numb an audience to the harsh realities of love and loss in the story but leave all to feel its full impact. It hurts so good.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 G5

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