The serious topic of mental illness is the surprising subject of Next to Normal, a musical opening Ensemble Theatre’s 26th season. It’s a perfect choice for the Over-the-Rhine theater that never shies away from matters that affect the lives of everyday people. Employing a cast of mostly local professionals, director D. Lynn Meyers has staged the Rock show’s first regional production anywhere in the U.S., one that could well be one of the best musicals onstage in Cincinnati this season.
Jessica Hendy is powerfully convincing as Diana, bipolar, mostly manic, resistant to medication and therapy. It’s painful to watch her struggle with her affliction and underlying grief — “ catch me, I’m falling, sinking and sprawling” — conveyed through the show’s vibrant songs as well as Hendy’s poignant, anxious performance. Mark Hardy is her long-suffering husband, and Mia Gentile is Natalie, their daughter, lost in the chaos of Diana’s problems. Mike Schwitter plays their all-too-perfect son, whose existence (or the lack thereof) becomes the focal point of this tale. Nick Cearley is Natalie’s geeky, sweet boyfriend, and Charlie Clark plays a series of doctors who treat Diana with frustrating (and sometimes humorous) inefficacy.
Brian c. Mehring’s set, a house framed in electric blue fluorescent tubes and a metal grid dotted with warm incandescent bulbs. Shifts between lighting effects underscore Diana’s mental state, not to mention her electro-shock therapy.
Brian Yorkey’s lyrics and Tom Kitt’s music (performed by music director Scot Woolley and three others) tell a moving story of the family’s struggle to find balance in the midst of Diana’s mental chaos. Near the show’s surprising conclusion, Maureen expresses her desire for a life that’s “something next to normal — close enough to get by.” ETC’s Next to Normal goes well beyond getting by — it’s like to be burned into our memories.
NEXT TO NORMAL, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Sept. 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.