/ Friday, April 10, 2015

The musical “Next to Normal” begins with its characters rushing around one morning preparing for ordinary days at school and work in the song “Just Another Day.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, told primarily in song, takes the audience on a rollercoaster of a ride from the first notes to the sweet finale as Diana seeks treatments that she hopes will help her reconnect with the world. All the pills she takes to avoid depression and manic episodes dull her moods. Diana just wants to feel something, or at least some of the highs and lows that the drugs erase. It could be a scene with any of us. But there’s nothing routine about the scene or anything else in this vibrant and emotionally involving musical about a mother dealing with bipolar disorder and its impact on her family.

The audience can feel it all in an impactful, funny and moving production directed and choreographed by Brad Wages for Venice Theatre’s Stage II series with impressive musical direction by Michelle Kasanofsky.

Kim Kollar, best known for any number of more comical roles, brings to life a woman desperate to feel “normal” with her family, get over past losses and move forward. Kollar plays all the extremes of emotions at just the right levels, and she makes something compelling even when Diana is at her most balanced, which means unfeeling and off-kilter. Kollar does it all beautifully and sensitively while singing rousing rock-infused melodies or tender ballads like “I Miss the Mountains,” a lovely song that expresses how she misses the good and bad feelings that are gone from her life. She is surrounded by an impressive cast that creates vivid believable depictions that touch on a range of feelings between happy and sad. And they all bring strong voices to the mix while maintaining a sense of spontaneity.

Chris Caswell is strong and compassionate as Diana’s caring husband, Dan, but he also reveals another side, a reluctance to push too hard, which he fears could be a hindrance to Diana’s treatment. But in a musical that shows us all sides, Diana interprets his actions in other ways.

Zach Herman is full of life and energy as their son, Gabe, a student who has an unusual pull on Diana. He moves fleetly and sings with power and honest emotions and a real sense of longing. So does Caitlin Longstreet Ellis as Gabe’s younger sister, Natalie, a high school student trying to find her way out of Gabe’s huge shadow. Natalie could seem petulant but Ellis makes us feel for her and understand the choices she makes.

One of the good ones is her new boyfriend, Henry, who is given a playful and encouraging spirit by Jason Ellis. Kelly Leisler also is fine as two drastically different doctors, one of whom becomes a brief rock star fantasy for Diana, as he tries to help find the balance she needs.

The show is staged on a two-level set by Wages and Allan Kollar that creates lots of playing areas and stirs extra energy as the performers run around or trudge up and down.

With Kasanofsky’s large and well-balanced band hidden off stage, the show is able to come alive before our eyes, as if for the first time, as we share in the joys, hopes and sorrows of a family that really makes us care about them.