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Review: Broward theater companies team up for powerful 'Next to Normal'

Correspondent

On Sunday evening, “60 Minutes” aired a piece on the resurgence in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for severely depressed patients. But earlier on Mother’s Day, I experienced a piece of theatrical art in which ECT temporarily becomes a balm for a grieving mother, even as it robs her of memories that have tormented her throughout her battle with bipolar I disorder.

“Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist-book writer Brian Yorkey, charts a family’s harrowing attempts to deal with mother Diana’s years-long struggles with her illness. The “60 Minutes” story, which showed Kitty Dukakis (the wife of former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis) receiving ECT, vividly underscored the truths captured by a shattering, enlightening, moving musical.

Two small Broward County theater companies, Infinite Abyss Productions and Measure for Measure Theatre, have joined forces to present “Next to Normal” at the Abyss Theatre (the same space Island City Stage calls home) in Wilton Manors.

The show has been done in South Florida before, first by Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables in 2012, then by Slow Burn Theatre at its first home in west Boca Raton in 2013. Whether or not you know the show, this intimate, collaborative new production is worth seeing.

Staged by Measure for Measure’s Daimien J. Matherson, “Next to Normal” features impressive actor-singers and a live five-piece orchestra perched above and behind the audience.

Sabrina Lynn Gore, who has worked often at Thinking Cap Theatre, Outre Theatre and Slow Burn, has one of her most challenging roles to date as Diana, and with intensity, humor and passion, she rises to the occasion.

She mourns the way prescription drugs flatten out her crazy emotions in “I Miss the Mountains,” waltzes with her long-gone son on “I Dreamed a Dance,” has the small beginnings of a reconciliation with her daughter as they sing “Maybe (Next to Normal).” The show’s lyrics are smart and tricky, but Gore does her storytelling with clarity, even in Diana’s most manic moments.

As her husband, Dan, Johnbarry Green plays a man very different from his slyly funny King Arthur in MNM Productions’ “Spamalot.” With his rich baritone, Green conveys the frustration and anxiety of a man who has spent most of his marriage trying to pull the wife he loves back from the brink of another breakdown, another manic episode, another encounter with her ongoing delusion.

Christopher Alvarez is amiable yet assertive as he play the couple’s son, Gabe, a mysterious figure with a surprising back story. The light of Diana’s life, he seems to be beckoning her to a very dark place where, just maybe, she can find elusive release from her torment.

Two of the younger actors, Camryn “Cami” Handler and Charlie Alguera, are making more-than-promising professional debuts in “Next to Normal.” Handler, who plays Diana and Dan’s angry daughter, Natalie, unleashes her furious frustration as she sings “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” Yet after considerable false starts and agitation, she finds something tender and special with Alguera as Natalie’s patient boyfriend, Henry. Alguera is a college student, and Handler will be in the fall. Both are worth watching.

Ernesto K. Gonzalez gets the flashy-by-turns roles of Diana’s two shrinks, the aptly named Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden. He runs the gamut from soothing to frightening, and when the drug-tinkering takes Diana to a place in which she feels nothing, he pronounces her “stable.” Which may be his most frightening act.

With scenic artist Nicole Navarro’s work on Matherson’s set suggesting Rorschach tests and a home in decay, Sierra Shreves’ moody lighting, Todd Silver’s sound design and the work of lighting director-sound engineer Clifford Spulock help create a world as haunting as Diana’s never-ending trauma.

This collaborative production of “Next to Normal” is more modest than the two South Florida versions that preceded it. But the power of this extraordinary musical is no less potent.

“Next to Normal” is running through June 3 at the Abyss Theatre, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $39.50 ($25 for students and Theatre League members). To order, go to Infinite-Abyss.org or MeasureForMeasureTheatre.com.

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