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Theater review: ‘Next to Normal’ filled with fabulous music and performances

Loved ones consider the best course of action for Diana's treatment in Renegade Theater Company's production of "Next to Normal." Andy Frye (left), Carolyn LePine and Andy Bennett star in the musical about mental illness. (Photo by Andy Miller)

“Next to Normal” is magnificent.

Renegade Theater Company’s production, which opened Thursday at Teatro Zuccone, is a cascade of fresh, fabulous music, with brilliant lyrics, performed by six of the best musicians and musical theater performers in the region.

It is also a story of pain and passion, torment and triumph, about a topic too often hidden in embarrassment and shame from public view.

Diana Goodman (Carolyn LePine) suffers from bipolar disorder with depression and delusional episodes. A series of doctors and treatments have been unable to help.

Brian Yorkey’s script, as directed by Katy Helbacka, makes excruciatingly clear how her disease sends tidal waves through her family: husband Dan (Andy Bennett) and teenage daughter, Natalie (Maria DePesa). It also directs a spotlight on the imprecision of diagnosing and treating mental illness.

SPOILER ALERT: Critical plot twist discussed beyond this point.

Though the script dips only briefly into the behavior associated with the disease, Diana’s song “You Don’t Know” details the torment raging in her brain — “the feeling that you’re falling but you never hit the ground.” It’s illustrated further when the ghost of the son who died in infancy but has grown to a teenager in her mind (Andy Frye) performs the driving, high-octane “I’m Alive.”

Composer Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Yorkey, provides one dazzling number after another, impeccably performed by a six-piece orchestra directed by Patrick Colvin. Much of the story is told, opera-like, in the lyrics — more “Les Miserables” than “Oklahoma” — so the crisp, clear delivery of the singers, bespeaking exhaustive rehearsal, is critical. Even complex, multi-voice numbers don’t muffle the words in beautifully intricate arrangements. The music ranges from the toe-tapping opening number, “Just Another Day,” to the heartbreaking, notably “I Am The One.”

Helbacka brilliantly demonstrates the chaos and tension in her characters’ lives with her blocking, as when daughter Natalie’s piano recital is juxtaposed with Diana talking with her doctor about the daughter who has always played second fiddle to her deceased brother.

Other cast members include Adam Sippola, whose entrance as a “rock star” doctor is dramatized with a wonderful lighting effect by Jon Moyer Grice and Bennett, and Natalie’s boyfriend, played by Joey Brueske. The lighting, as well as Evan Kelly’s blue-and-white set, are on the same lofty level as the rest of the production.

Paul Brissett is a Duluth writer and amateur actor who has performed in numerous community theater productions.

SHOW INFORMATION

What: Renegade Theater Company’s “Next to Normal”

Where: Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior St.

When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday, and Thursday–Saturday through April 5

How much: $18, but $15 for students and seniors and $10 student rush on Thursdays

For information: (218) 449-9782 or RenegadeTheaterCompany.org

The review: This may be the best show you’ll see this season. Don’t miss it.

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