Talented cast and gorgeous set anchor Lebowsky Center’s ‘Next to Normal’


Friday night, 11 p.m., Lansing.

My daughter: “How was the play?”

Me: “It’s hard to describe … a rock musical about bipolar depression and maternal loss, sprinkled with a suicide attempt, electroconvulsive therapy and a needful ghost of a dead boy. But it was more cheerful than I thought it would be!”

Honestly, I was skeptical about whether I could sit through “Next to Normal,” a musical about psychosis, an imploding nuclear family and medical ineptitude. Like the show’s Goodman family and countless other families in this country, this one struck a personal chord. Beyond a rote explanation of the structures of the brain, it’s chilling to realize that when it comes to treatment for psychiatric conditions, modern medicine is essentially throwing spaghetti against the wall. As described in one of the songs from the play, many unsuccessfully try countless pharmaceuticals only to agree to wipe the slate clean by erasing the endless loop of painful thoughts and maladaptive behaviors — a factory reset.

Despite my skepticism, I have to acknowledge that the Broadway version of “Next to Normal” beat out Elton John for a Tony award for best original score in 2009 and won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010, sharing rarefied air with “Of Thee I Sing,” “South Pacific,” “A Chorus Line,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Rent,” “Hamilton,” “Fiorello!” and “A Strange Loop.” Obviously, the story resonates. 

I was annoyed by the inorganic cause of the mother’s  illness — the loss of a child is a bit too tidy. So many people don’t know where their illness came from: Could it be genetics, childhood trauma or a concussive head injury? Still, given the tight constructs of a dramatic musical, it works to connect this irretrievable loss to psychosis. And while the usual sellout tropes about the mother-daughter relationship are also bothersome, they’re deftly handled by director Garrett Bradley. Actors Amanda DeKatch as the afflicted mother, Diana, and Anna Anderson as the teenage daughter, Natalie, are seldom in the same room together for long. Their interactions are icy, exasperated and dismissive. The multi-story set lends itself beautifully to this distance.

Which leads me to the gorgeous, wondrous set. A mid-century modern masterpiece, it was all I could do not to walk up there and go through the kitchen cabinets and desk drawers. With wall cut-outs, the audience is given slight peeks at a sofa around the corner in a larger room we aren’t meant to see, a laundry basket sitting on a bed and a storage area under the stairs. Like the intimate peek we’re granted into the Goodmans’ troubled family life, the set provides glimpses of the familiar.

There’s no question that the production is tight. Every actor hits their notes, every one of them incredibly talented and on point. My only minor complaint is the lighting design. In my fifth-row seat, I found myself shielding my eyes from the piercingly bright light that occasionally rotated past my face. Perhaps a foretelling of the closing number, “Light,” or a reminder to look on the sunny side, I couldn’t help but feel that a followspot key had accidentally slipped from someone’s grasp. Despite this small quibble, this production of “Next to Normal” at the Lebowsky Center is well worth the trip to Owosso.


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