Sunnyvale’s ‘Next to Normal’ successfully explores mental illness through theater

Content warning: This article discusses mental illness and suicide. It also contains spoilers for the musical “Next to Normal.”

Sunnyvale Community Players’ latest production of “Next to Normal” is nothing short of amazing. The show, which opens a powerful dialogue on mental health, was strengthened by impressive casting and nuanced character relationships.

The musical centers around a suburban family dealing with the mother’s mental illness in the aftermath of a mysterious family tragedy. We begin the show with a seemingly “perfect loving family” — the parents Diana and Dan, and teenage children Natalie and Gabe — getting ready for a busy day. 

Everything seems normal until Diana has a nervous breakdown that morning. It is then revealed that Diana has been battling mental illness for years; while she has been prescribed medication, nothing seems to work without taking life away from her. After Diana decides to flush her medication away, we learn that her son Gabe is not actually alive — he died 16 years ago as a baby and an older version of him has been haunting her memory ever since. 

Sunnyvale’s production featured two casts dubbed the “Mountains” and “Lights” casts; I saw the “Lights” cast on Saturday. The chemistry between the two leads, Dan and Diana, played by Joseph Cloward and Christi Waybright respectively, was palpable. Cloward portrayed Dan as a patriarch who at times dismisses his wife’s struggles, which was heartbreaking to watch. Waybright’s Diana was intense and emotional, and her struggles with mental illness were portrayed with depth and empathy. Despite their tension, it is obvious that the two characters love each other dearly. 

Their connection is apparent in the small details injected into the production, like how Dan holds Diana’s hand every time he takes her to the doctor. Their affection elicits the audience’s sympathy for both, making Diana’s choice to leave their marriage in the finale even sadder. In the closing scene, Dan collapsing on the floor in sorrow and Natalie comforting him left me bawling.

The staging of the show was also superb, showcasing the musical’s critique of the structure of the American nuclear family. The set design by Sophie Sonntag made strong use of the stage space; the frame of a house stood in the back, while a dining table, sink and windows were set in the foreground. Windows were hung in front of the house with exposed wire, adding an eerie element to the staging. Stairs leading to a small balcony were placed directly in front of the house, acting as a representation of Diana’s imagination. Gabe was frequently present on the upper level, metaphorically holding power over Diana’s emotions and the family dynamics.

Natalie and her stoner partner Henry (played by Mai Abe and Jenni Chapman, respectively) were cute and charming together. Chapman’s portrayal of Henry as non-binary was refreshing, making for an especially stinging impression when Dan said Henry was a bad influence on Natalie, which could be seen as a resistance to Henry’s queer identity. 

The affinity between the two teenage characters was endearing. They leaned into the caricature of adolescence and theatricality with more exaggerated movement and awkwardness, which worked well for their angsty juvenile roles. Their dynamic worked well, especially in the second act as Henry’s caring side was revealed as Natalie began abusing drugs.

The relationship between actors and their artistic choices demonstrated key themes of the show. For example, the strained mother-daughter dynamic between Natalie and Diana was well executed. Before “I Miss the Mountains,” Diana’s heartbreaking ballad about wanting to feel emotion again, she tries to talk to Natalie about the latter’s relationship with Henry, but Natalie actively avoids her. The song becomes not only about Diana missing her mental state before the drugs made her feel numb, but also about her youth, when she was carefree like Natalie.

The portrayal of the character Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine (Ryan Liu) was also noteworthy. Liu did an excellent job of showing big pharma and how an individual, like a doctor, works within a system that villainizes mental illness. The nuance in his performance was impressive, and you can see his lack of understanding toward Diana, even if he thinks he is doing the right thing.

The only disappointment in the show was the portrayal of Gabe (Theo Twilleager). While Twillleager displayed the softer and playful aspects of the character, he didn’t feel like a menace, which is an essential aspect of the character. The songs “I’m Alive” and “I Am the One” did not hit the way they normally would. They should have been equally an expression of frustration and sadness, and a threat that his death will haunt the family forever as its members repress their trauma. 

Another weak point in the show was the sound mixing. Many lines were not caught, and the vocal harmonies weren’t always present when the sound on some microphones were lower than others. However, the final song, “Light,” was well-executed, with everyone projecting well and their voices blending into a beautiful chord.

Despite minor flaws, Sunnyvale Community Players’ production of “Next to Normal” is a must-see for anyone who appreciates musical theater and wants to learn more about the complexities of mental health in America. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.


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