Mental illness doesn’t usually fare well on the stage—or on screen, for that matter—though many have tried. Either it’s clichés about sudden epiphanies (Hitchcock’s Spellbound) or hopelessness and despair (Robert Redford’s Ordinary People)—very little in between. Getting to the bottom of neuroses and psychoses is a tough haul in reality, let alone in the world of theater.
Next to Normal, the dark, complex musical, succeeded brilliantly in portraying the angst and derangement of its lead character. Dear Evan Hansen dealt with the darker side of growing up. Jagged Little Pill told of addiction in middle-class America. Spring Awakening was chock full of neurotic youth bursting at the seams. These shows are examples of delving deeply into the subject matter with songs amplifying the intentions.
The new musical Relapse at Theatre Row uneasily toes a line midway between optimism and pessimism. Written by J. Giachetti (book and lyrics) and Louis Josephson (music and additional lyrics), the show manages to expose the torment of each patient and the intramural bickering and name-calling among themselves.
The four patients, all in their twenties, represent a laundry list of neurotic behavior. Adam (Jacob Ryan Smith) is an alcoholic; Bryan (Randall Scott Carpenter), bulemic; Kendra (Mia Cherise Hall), survivor of sexual abuse; and Melinda (Becca Suskauer), the youngest, is a fragile schizophrenic. They go into their back stories via the songs.
Bryan lays it all out in the ironic “Fine”; he and Adam come to some reconciliation in their touching duet “To Be a Man.” Kendra describes living with sexual abuse in the bitter “What Would You Do.”
Dr. Carlisle (Troy Valjean Rucker) is the way too understanding chief physician for the group therapy session. He is helped by nurse Margot (Ashley Alexandra) who is often at odds with his methods.
In Relapse’s most original conceit, a quartet called The Intrusive (Vinny Celerio, Audree Hedequist, Nicole Lamb and Zummy Mohammed) becomes a Greek Chorus, insinuating themselves into the minds of the four unhappy patients while commenting on the inner workings of their care. The four are nimble, vivid and sing well, choreographed by Freyani Patrice whose movements ooze, flit and crawl about the stage as these four surround each character.
Scenic designer Sheryl Liu places the action on six blue chairs arranged in a semi-circle backed by floor-to-ceiling curtains that sometimes rise to reveal other spaces. Lighting designer Brian Nason, gives the simple set subtly. Serving double duty as the costume designer, Liu dresses the characters in totally appropriate contemporary street wear.
The songs run from zippily entertaining to melancholy and heartfelt. “Psych 101,” sung by the Intrusive crew, summarizes, one-by-one, the issues each patient has to deal with taking a sardonic tone.
All the actors give enthusiastic and skilled performances with Alexandra’s nurse Margot a particular standout. Her solo, “Serenity,” was a well-composed and sung tale of her trials as a go-between the Doctor and the patients. The other singer/actors pour their hearts out, too, but she somehow hit the emotions dead-on.
Music director Jordon Cunningham serves Josephson well, drawing every nuance in his music from his small on-stage band.
Director Joey McKneely artfully keeps what is actually an extended series of character studies moving smoothly, helped by the four young actors portraying the troubled patients who turn themselves inside out finding three-dimensions in their clichés.
Relapse: A New Musical has a great deal going for it—good cast, energetic songs—but is hobbled by an ending that is far too optimistic and, unfortunately, predictable.
Relapse: A New Musical (through September 23, 2023)
Theatre Row – Theatre 5, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.BFANY.org/Theatre-Row
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission