“Next to Normal,” in its simplest form, is easy fodder for a local theater, seemingly making it the perfect show for BareStage Productions to put on as the first musical of the school year. With a small cast and an easy marriage of old school theater musicality and edgy themes, the show brings a little something for everyone. As a pioneering modern musical, “Next to Normal” expanded the range of topics and issues that musical theater could tackle. But with this expansion comes a show that requires a razor-sharp understanding of serious themes in order to avoid coming across as flat or meaningless.
The 2008 rock musical, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, follows the Goodman family through the ups and downs of the ever-worsening bipolar disorder of Diana Goodman, the matriarch, with a focus on how it affects the other family members. The show is notable for its raw and honest portrayal of mental illness and psychiatric ethics, with heartfelt sympathy extended toward all the characters.
“Next to Normal” is truly nothing without a spectacular live band. Backing tracks often rush or lag, often to the demise of a show like this that has music playing under almost every scene. Fortunately, the “Next to Normal” pit orchestra was perfectly on pace, providing the show with an extra oomph of life and energy.
The cast was ultimately the highlight of the show. In her performance as Diana’s daughter Natalie, UC Berkeley freshman and BareStage newcomer Kamilah Cole carries an endlessly impressive amount of talent. Cole brings incredible heart to the character’s musical numbers, which was only amplified by her spectacular voice.
The actors playing Diana and Dan Goodman, Keila Cone-Uemura and Peter Stielstra, respectively, have mature voices that help alleviate some of the dissonances that can come about when seeing people of the same age playing both parents and children. Cone-Uemura, in particular, perfectly encapsulates the strained mental state of Diana, with a reserved exterior and particularly tense movements.
Despite a rocky start, any of Stielstra’s early jitters are entirely abated by the song “I’ve Been,” which comes near the end of the first act and gives the character of Dan his emotional center. Anxiety-ridden and emotionally raw, Stielstra excels in his performance as the tired father trying to keep his family together.
TJ Gassaway, who also pulled double duty in his onstage performance as Henry, was the show’s set designer. The staging, with an elevated platform and staircase, was structurally impressive, but the color scheme of white and primary colors was a confusing choice when a simpler color palette may have better served the show. The set, in effect, ended up looking more reminiscent of a beaded toy from a pediatric’s waiting room than a suburban home.
Adding to the unnecessary complexity of some pieces of the performance, the lighting designer often opted for two spotlights rather than a general light for the multiple “Hey” numbers. On a stage the size of the Choral Rehearsal Hall, two spotlights felt unnecessary and messy, creating a distracting and shaky effect in some of the show’s simplest songs. The purple motif often seen in performances of “Next to Normal” was almost entirely absent. The show’s lighting felt somewhat random, with colors splashed about the scenes with what seemed like little consideration given to the long-standing tradition of color symbolism in the show.
The costumes stood out as an especially confusing call by the designer, which continued to stand out in almost every part of the show. As opposed to Diana’s famous cardigan that she anxiously wraps around her waist, BareStage’s production presents Diana in a ruffled top and trendy light-wash denim.
Natalie’s costume choices, too, felt randomly assembled. The shy, bookish Natalie, who is barely holding it together on script, is somehow transformed into the coolest girl at your high school onstage, with a blue plaid miniskirt and a matching blue cropped sweater. The character of Doctor Madden is dressed glamorously, closer to a cast member of “Chicago Med” than a medical professional.
The characters in “Next to Normal” are, as per the title, entirely based in their normality. Insisting that all of the characters look Instagram-ready in every scene feels like an oversight of the costume department.
“Next to Normal” is a show with tremendous depth that can be found in everything from the specificity of characters’ presence in a scene to the eye contact between actors onstage. This depth needs to be uncovered, piece by piece, and choices need to be made with careful attention to the argument that the show makes about grief and mental illness, however. BareStage’s production lacks a measured understanding of the show’s influence on audiences, and thus, the emotional impact of the show is ultimately fumbled, despite the best efforts of the cast.