Arts & Culture

Must-see ‘Next to Normal’ a compelling look at mental illness

With this brilliant production of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal,” Crown Uptown Theatre firmly establishes itself in the top echelon of Wichita entertainment with the likes of Music Theatre of Wichita and Theater League.

Directed by Matthew Rumsey with a sterling cast, this production — a Wichita and Kansas premiere — is the sort of involving, engaging show that could confidently open in much larger metropolitan venues and be assured of rave reviews. It’s just that thrilling and that indelible.

With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and pop/jazz/rock music by Tom Kitt, this 2009 Tony Award winner is nontraditional and cutting-edge in the vein of “Sweeney Todd,” “Rent” and “Spring Awakening.” It’s a look at mental illness, which seems an unlikely subject for a musical.

But Yorkey’s dialogue and lyrics display a sharp wit and a surprising amount of wry, dark and sometimes painful humor (“Valium is my favorite color”) as it explores a suburban mom’s escalating struggle with bipolar disorder and the heartbreaking toll it takes on her husband, daughter and son. It’s thoroughly adult in themes — and some fleeting language — but it’s compelling and revelatory.

It asks difficult, insightful questions, such as: Who is crazier: the spouse who can’t cope or the one who clings mindlessly to fading hope? And after various drug regimens, side effects, psychoanalysis and electric shock, it dares to consider whether “normal” is a realistic goal (hence, the title).

Shannon McMillan (Crown’s “A Chorus Line” and “White Christmas”) plays Diana, the wife and mother at the core of the story, and she is a magnificent blend of crackling intelligence and fragile emotionalism. She invites us into her world with “Just Another Day,” about her supposedly perfect life. McMillan’s voice has heft and warmth, and she beautifully acts her lyrics, whether in comic mode for “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” or in reflective, regretful mood for “I Miss the Mountains” or in a haunting mother/son moment for the wistfully waltzy “I Dreamed a Dance.”

New York-based Brad Grimmer (making his Crown debut) is equally riveting as Dan, Diana’s loving — and enabling — husband who tries to gloss over problems with his bouncy living-in-denial anthem that “It’s Gonna Be Good.” He vows to always stick by her but is beginning to fear that he may not have the strength. While his voice is paternally powerful, Grimmer displays an evocative sensitivity, particularly with his heartbreaking father/son moment in “I Am the One.”

Colin Anderson (also making his Crown debut) plays mischievous, misbehaving 17-year-old son Gabe, who has become the troublesome center of his mom’s unsteady universe. Anderson, an Oklahoma City University student who understudied the role for the Oklahoma premiere, has a versatile rock-star voice with considerable range. His “I’m Alive” is a powerful cry for attention, and his “There’s a World” is mournfully lovely.

Sarah Grover plays daughter Natalie, a 16-year-old musical prodigy who is resentful at being neglected in her brother’s shadow. Crown newcomer Grover, who won a supporting actress award for the same role in the Colorado premiere, is a powerhouse in a small package with a lovely lilt to her voice for the “Hey 1” (and its reprises) romantic banter between her and a would-be boyfriend. And her “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” about her and her brother is a compelling tirade against the unfairness of it all.

Regan McLellan (Crown’s “A Chorus Line,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”) plays Natalie’s easy-going boyfriend Henry, who tries to reassure her that she’s not a loser. And Ross McCorkell (Wichita State University grad and Music Theatre of Wichita veteran) plays the various doctors who treat Diana. McLellan has a lanky, goofy likability, and McCorkell has an explosive vocal power that stops the show at one point.

Director Rumsey keeps the pace brisk but not rushed as the story unfolds — and the emotions unravel. The spectacular, clean-lined set by Gregory R. Crane is a three-level house in black and white with pops of red in a chair or table and a giant pop-art painting. Emily Valley’s costumes subtly coordinate with the set through neutrals and muted colors with the occasional pop of red in a dress, apron, necktie or polo shirt like warning signals of emotional storms ahead for the person wearing it.

The six-piece combo — mostly strings and percussion — directed by Philip Taylor sounded great with members visible through scrim walls of the set. And sound seemed spot-on, although opening night was occasionally a little too loud.

For local theater-lovers, this is a landmark, must-see show.