Next to Normal: an emotional wallop

Whomp! The audience gasps. Slam! the audience laughs. Smash! The audience is on the verge of tears. “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize and

Tony award winner which opened Friday at Albuquerque’s Desert Rose Playhouse, carries as great an emotional wallop as any play I’ve seen in New Mexico in 40 years, and the power keeps on roiling throughout two full acts.

It is stunning, not least for its utter idiosyncrasy. Close your eyes and imagine a rock musical about how a middle-aged bipolar woman destroys herself and her family, experiments with just about every known form of medication and self-medication, fails to heal but at the end survives with a tiny ray, a glimmer, the most minuscule possible glint of hope. I for one could not imagine such a play, and I went to its opening believing such a performance defied possibility.

It turned out this story was not only possible but a triumph—a triumph of fragile human dignity and stubborn perseverance over everything that we fear will destroy them.

The play’s lead character Diana (Karen Byers) put me in mind of Ernest Hemingway’s eponymous hero in “The Old Man and The Sea”: “Man is not made for defeat….A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

The amateur performance had lots of very ragged edges, not least that of Adam Phillips, who had the thankless task of rescuing the character of Diana’s husband Dan when the original actor fell ill only two weeks before opening night. That the power of “Next to Normal” survived all the glitches was a tribute not only to the book and lyrics of Brian Yorkey and the music of Tom Kitt, but the deft performance of Byers.

Her bipolar swings range from rage to sobs, from joy to despair, from strutting dominance to curled-in-a-ball embryonic feebleness. Throughout, however, this veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway and national tours is in command of the stage.

Effectively supporting her was Clara Lambert as Diana’s adolescent daughter Natalie. She smoothly navigates the transposition from the leather-clad, fishnet-tights Goth of Act I to the short-haired, innocent-faced naif of Act II—not an easy feat for an experienced actor but rather amazing for one who is still a student at the University of Toronto.

Cash Martinez’s fine voice fills out the tricky role of Gabe, the ghostly long-dead son of Diana and Adam. His now-you-see-him-now you don’t persona is illustrated in a conversation between Henry and Natalie while Natalie’s mother is preparing a birthday celebration.

“Whose birthday is it?” asks Henry.

“My brother’s,” replies Natalie.

“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Henry says.

“I don’t,” replies Natalie.

At one point the dead Gabe sings, “I’m every son that will stay unsung. I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m so alive.”

The paradox is not explained until later, when we learn that Natalie’s brother died many years ago as an infant.

Bryan Durden, as Henry, the teenage would-be lover of Natalie, also has a strong voice.

Christopher Chase agilely performs the roles of Diana’s doctors, both real and imagined.

Director Michael Montroy, who among his other credits wrote for “MASH,” directed Clint Eastwood and coached John Travolta, manages to tame this big musical (which includes an on-stage three-piece band) for the small, bare black box stage of the Desert Rose.

A beautiful ballad, “There Was a Time,” includes the lyrics, “I miss the mountains. I miss the highs and lows…Everything is perfect. Nothing is real.”

The title song, and one of the show’s most touching, is sung by Natalie as she tries to console her mother: “I don’t need a life that’s normal. That’s way too far away. But something next to normal would be OK. Yeah, something next to normal, that’s the thing I’d like to try. Close enough to normal to get by.”

When the mother finally gives up on electroshock and pills, she sings, “There has to be a better way” and leaves alone to find it—“I’ll try this on my own, a life I’ve never known. It’s time for me to go.” She also sings, “Maybe I am tired of coming up short of the rules of the game, of shame…Maybe we can’t be OK but maybe we’re tough and we we try anyway.” She apologizes to her daughter, “We wanted to give you a normal life. I realize I have no idea what that is.”

The hopefulness that touches the play’s conclusion is encapsulated in this lyric: “There’s a world I know. A place where we can go where the pain will go away…There’s a world where the sun shines each day. Shine, shine, shine. There will be light.”

Desert Rose Playhouse will perform “Next to Normal” Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.through Sept. 1, at 6901 Montgomery Blvd. NE in Albuquerque. For information and reservations go to desertroseplayhouse.net or call 505-563-0316.