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THEATER REVIEW: “Next To Normal”

Diana Goodman (Bets Malone), like most moms, is trying to get through “Just Another Day.” But when you’re bipolar, getting through the day can be a challenge.

Diana has another problem: she’s never come to terms with the years-ago death of her infant son Gabe. In fact, she “sees” him (Eddie Egan), even at one point bakes him a 17th birthday cake -- much to the embarrassment of daughter Natalie (Lindsay Joan), whose new, stoner boyfriend Henry (Eric Michael Parker) has joined the family for dinner.

Diana’s husband Dan (Robert J. Townsend) is just trying to hold Diana and the family together -- no small feat, given her on-again-off-again relationship with medication – and to give Natalie some of the attention she doesn’t get from her mother.

Dan takes her to Dr. Madden (Geno Carr), who tries to connect and to enlist Diana’s cooperation. It’s no easy task, and though medication and electroshock therapy are tried, she finally rejects their leveling influence in the touching “I Miss The Mountains,” whose the last line made me misty: “I miss my life.”

San Diego Musical Theatre presents the regional theater premiere of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera “Next To Normal” through Oct. 12 at the North Park Theatre. Nick DeGruccio, who directed the award-winning production of this show in La Mirada last season, does the honors here.

When I say rock opera, I mean that. Kitt’s music is often sung-through, but also contains some memorable pieces (among them Gabe’s angry “I’m Alive” and Diana and Natalie’s duet “Maybe”) along with operatic duets, trios and quartets, all difficult and requiring superb musicianship and excellent training. This cast delivers.

And it is unquestionably rock, the sound of musical director Don LeMaster’s mighty sextet sometimes ear-splitting (especially in the first act) but always appropriate.

Local favorite Malone shines in the extremely difficult role of Diana. Perhaps it helps that she played it last year in La Mirada; in any case, she is terrific.

Townsend is utterly convincing (not to mention heartbreaking) as the rock of the family, “living on a latte and a prayer” and wanting so much to fix the problem, but knowing it is not possible. Townsend and his beautiful voice played opposite Malone in La Mirada.

Egan’s Gabe is my favorite – seductive and a little scary, but with a lithe voice and wide range that can’t help but captivate.

Joan is a find – a 16-year-old with terrific vocal power and a nice sense of drama, she communicates the dilemma of the ignored child well.

Carr lends his easy-on-the-ears tenor voice to two doctor characters, adding humor and sadness where needed.

Parker is awkwardly charming as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry, especially in their “Perfect For You” duet.

The angularity of Matt Scarpino’s dual-level, minimalist set sets the mood perfectly, augmented nicely by Matthew Novotny’s fine lighting design and Janet Pitcher’s costumes.

Mental illness might seem a strange topic for a musical – and “Next To Normal” isn’t for everyone -- but this small-scale rock opera (only six people in the cast) is at heart a moving family story, wonderfully performed. It is not to be missed.

The details

San Diego Musical Theatre presents “Next To Normal” through Oct. 12 at the North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave., North Park in San Diego, California.

Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (858) 560-5740 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.