T.O.’s turn to stage hard-hitting musical

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘Next to Normal’

THERAPY—Diana (Michelle Lane) struggles with mental illness as her son, Gabe (Landen Starkman) watches in “Next to Normal.” Courtesy of Paul Cranmer

THERAPY—Diana (Michelle Lane) struggles with mental illness as her son, Gabe (Landen Starkman) watches in “Next to Normal.” Courtesy of Paul Cranmer

Two months ago, we reviewed the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal.” This month, Panic Productions is giving the show its Thousand Oaks debut and it’s interesting to note the differences and similarities between the productions.

Panic director Corey Lynn Howel, for example, has chosen a more conventional visual approach than SVCAC’s impressionistic set design.

In terms of acting, Simi’s show featured a strong six-person cast, and the Panic performers are equally impressive.

Michelle Lane heads Panic’s production as Diana Goodman, the housewife suffering from a bipolar disorder who is catapulted into a full-blown mental collapse stemming from a traumatic event early in her marriage.

Lane last played Diana at the Pico Playhouse’s run of the show two years ago; her current portrayal of Diana is much more nuanced and multifaceted. We sense something is out of balance right from her first appearance: slightly disheveled with a curious look of anguish on her face. “It only hurts when I breathe,” she wryly sings during the opening number, “Just Another Day,” in which she finds herself making sandwiches on the floor while her family stares at her in shock.

Lane is a remarkable actress, able to convey Diana’s pain and confusion with fragile emotion as she struggles to figure out which is worse, her symptoms or the cure.

While her doctor, capably played by Renee Cohen, prescribes a perplexing cocktail of mood-numbing drugs, Diana muses (in the achingly beautiful “I Miss the Mountains”) that her “blank and tranquil years have dried up my tears,” adding “everything’s perfect, nothing’s real.”

Discarding the drug regimen, she reluctantly opts for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which results in a catastrophic loss of memory, threatening her already fragile relationship with her husband Dan and daughter Natalie.

Landen Starkman plays Gabe, Diana and Dan’s son, whose presence we discover is the triggering mechanism for Diana’s current condition. A graduate of Calabasas High School, Starkman gives a devastatingly effective performance as Gabe, injecting his character with a Mephistophelian menace as he hovers over his mother, especially in the gloating song “I’m Alive!”

Starkman’s malevolent take on Gabe contrasts with the more customarily sympathetic portrayals of the character and increases the tension in each scene where he appears, smirking at his sister Natalie (well played by Julia Lester, another Calabasas High alumnus) during her resentful solo “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.”

When Gabe enters in a white tuxedo to dance with his mother on “I Dreamed a Dance,” the unsettling wistfulness of the scene is agonizing to the audience as they realize he is the modern embodiment of the deadly Sirens in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

Brent Ramirez gives his usual solid performance in his portrayal of Dan while Daniel Bellusci is likable as Natalie’s free-spirited boyfriend

Henry. Henry is concerned about global warming, wears Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses Tshirts, and objects to Natalie’s alarmingly increased ingestion of her mother’s tranquilizers. Despite his eccentricities, he turns out to be the one stabilizing influence on the dysfunctional family.

Howe’s casting of Ramirez, Starkman and Bellusci is brilliant not just because of their acting but because each demonstrates the ability to reach the sweet, high tenor notes required of the songs, which were written by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkes. (In some cases, the male voices are pitched higher than the female singers’ in their duets, indicating their helplessness.)

Casting a woman as Diana’s two doctors adds an element of sexual confusion to Lane’s character, but Cohen’s casual, relatively provocative costumes limit the satirical point that’s being aimed at the dispassionate nature of the medical profession.

Jan Roper leads the efficient, skilled five-piece orchestra.

“Next to Normal” contains disturbing subject matter and frequent profanity and is not recommended for children.

It runs through June 17 at Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For tickets, visit hillcrestarts.com or call (805) 381-2747.