A not-so-perfect life

Bristol Riverside’s ‘Next to Normal’ takes a look at the struggles of a typical suburban family

On stage: The cast of Next to Normal is (from left) Donna Vivino, Danny Vaccaro, Liam Snead and Laura Giknis. The show runs through Nov. 24 at Bristol Riverside Theatre. Source: Bristol Riverside Theatre

Nothing in life is perfect, especially when it comes to maintaining a healthy marriage and raising children. Sometimes, having something next to normal is simply enough.

For attendees of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current mainstage production, this is truly a takeaway message.

Next to Normal, on stage through Nov. 24, is a musical that provides a glimpse into the everyday struggles of a seemingly average suburban family. With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal is toe-tapping proof that even those who appear to be living the American dream have skeletons (and ghosts) in the closet they must address.

The production stars Broadway veteran Donna Vivino as leading lady Diana, a wife and mother whose crippling bipolar and schizophrenia disorders have left her hanging onto reality by a thread. Vivino is a force to be reckoned with on stage as she takes audiences on a journey of overwhelming emotions, which change instantaneously from romantic and loving, to anxious and depressed, to outright hallucinating that her psychopharmacologist is a rockstar.

“Diana is a woman filled with rage and confusion,” said BRT artistic director Keith Baker. “She has a sardonic and lacerating wit. She loves and is a mother, but is overwhelmed. She is lost in a wonderland. She must find the answer to save herself. The actress playing Diana must be able to make us sympathetic to all of this. Donna was perfect for this role.”

Vivino’s powerful voice is pure velvet as she nails each song thrown her way, most notably “I Miss the Mountains,” during which she dramatically tosses her pills into the trash in an attempt to regain her sense of self. Kitt, best known for creating the soundtrack of the Green Day-inspired American Idiot, didn’t stray far from those rock roots in Next to Normal. Each song, whether it’s a guitar-heavy anthem of angst or a heart-gripping ballad, manages to touch a nerve and catapult the audience into this family’s messed-up world.

Just like Vivino’s personality, Next to Normal is a rollercoaster. Though certainly darker than your average happy-go-lucky musical, touching on death, suicide and addiction, the show boasts a large amount of unexpected, clever comedy throughout the 2.5-hour runtime.

For example, the song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” is about the dozens of medications Diana is required to take for her disorders. The subject of drugs isn’t exactly enjoyable, but the scene is sprinkled with humor, choreography and a cheeky reference to “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

Next to Normal confronts very contemporary problems,” said Baker. “The show expands the notion of what musical theater can do and the subjects it can approach. It does this while being utterly compelling and entertaining. I love this piece because of its courage, its fearlessness in tackling this subject, and the quality of its score and lyrics. It does not flinch at all.”

The musical is comprised of an intimate cast, and each member brings a special dynamic. A standout is Laura Giknis, who has returned to BRT to play Natalie, Diana’s conflicted daughter. Giknis, who appeared in Time Stands Still and Little Shop of Horrors, flawlessly portrays the invisible, ripped jeans-sporting teenager, who deals with her mother’s problems less-than-flawlessly.

Playing Natalie’s brother is Liam Snead, who appeared on the BRT stage this summer in Broadway Summer Spectacular. Snead, whose fate The Times won’t spoil for readers, is the definition of an antagonist in Next to Normal, ultimately preventing Diana from getting any better. Still, his character has one of the catchiest songs in the entire score – “I’m Alive” – which is likely to remain engrained in theater-goers’ heads for several days.

Danny Vaccaro has also returned to BRT (Time Stands Still, Tuesdays with Morrie) as Diana’s husband Dan, who effortlessly describes the entire show in one line – “Love is insane.” Despite his wife’s ever-changing moods and debilitating hallucinations, he stands by her side, always hoping for the best, even as things continue to spiral downward.

Additionally, the cast includes BRT newbie Garry Lumpkin as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry, and Philadelphia favorite Scott Greer, who plays the slew of doctors who attempt to care for Diana.

Before its Off-Broadway debut, Next to Normal received several workshop performances and won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and received Drama Desk Awards nominations for Outstanding Actress and Outstanding Score. The musical opened on Broadway in 2009. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won three – Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the eighth musical in history to receive the honor.

Next to Normal runs at Bristol Riverside Theatre through Nov. 24. Tickets start at $15 to $55 and are available online at brtstage.org, by calling 215-785-0100 or at the box office, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Subscriptions for the 2019-2020 season are still available. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com