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Paramount’s ‘Beside Normal’ confronts mental illness

The sounds are incredible. The music is strong.

But it was the faces that drew me so deeply to “Next to Normal,” the first production of Paramount’s second Bold Series, which is currently on display at the Copley Theater through September 3.

Much has been said about art that imitates life. But with performers only feet, sometimes even inches, from the audience, this Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical that tackles grief, addiction, mental illness, and all of our human suburban vulnerabilities can’t help but become a hit. This is closer to home at the Aurora theater in the city centre.

Not to mention the faces of the six incredibly talented actors on this show, including Aurora’s own Jake Ziman, who, in my humble opinion, was born to play the role of the 17-year-old son throughout his life. It’s not his fault, he plunged his family into deeper chaos.

The vocal chops on display by this 23-year-old West Aurora High and Millikin University graduate, whether she screams “I’m Alive” as she leaps—literally—through the scene, or the damaged, hallucinatory mother in play.

In an earlier interview about the series, Director Jim Corti commended the unusually close and supportive relationship that has developed between this small but powerful cast, particularly Ziman and LA actress Donna Louden, who plays her mother, Diana.

Whether it was loving or dangerous, the scenes they spent together gave me goosebumps every time.

Nevertheless, II. That startling moment of truth between father and son in Act (played by Barry DeBois as Dad Dan) almost took my breath away.

Angel Alzeidan as the ignored sister Natalie, Jake DiMaggio Lopez as her boyfriend Henry, and both Dr. Yet occasionally during their performance I found myself examining the audience—which is easy enough to do in such a small theater—and wondering how each person sitting in those Copley Theater seats was responding to the story that unfolded so intimately yet powerfully before them.

For example, who among them mourned the loss of a child?

How many people know their loved ones struggling with bipolar disorder? With delusions? With dementia?

How many people are personally familiar with the impact of addiction on lives? What about depression? Or is it suicide?

Who has suffered for the love of a parent whose demons make it impossible to give?

How many people still feel the pain of rejection? Or have you let grief stifle all joy?

How many life journeys are there that longs to be like everyone else? As if we really knew what everyone else’s life was really like.

Saying more about the narrative takes away from your “Besides Normal” experience. And I hope you’ll go and see it, not just because it stars Aurora or because I cite it as one of my favorite Paramount productions of all time.

Go see to feel.

Go see your family to understand better. Or your friend. Or your neighbor. Or yourself.

Or each other.

I now understand why Corti felt the need to bring her into this production as an expert counselor in the mental health field. “Besides Normal” looks directly at this difficult subject and keeps her gaze tight.

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And from what I saw on Wednesday evening, the audience was stunned.

A Paramount boss later told me that it was the sandwich-making scene where Diana manically put together school lunches and had a surprising effect on her. “It was utter desperation and crazy energy,” he said, “to think a good lunch would work,” as other parts of your life were falling apart.

He also told me that the production “ticks every box” when it comes to performance: talent, power, humor, relevance. He couldn’t help but think about it.

I can’t either.

And while all these rock songs, no matter how good they are, don’t stay in your head permanently, I’m guessing the passion and originality with which this whole musical is performed will haunt your thoughts long after the cast gives their final salute.

Such is the power of live theatre. To help us face our humanity. To help us better understand that our weaknesses, while not completely normal, are definitely on their side.

dcrosby@tribpub.com

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