Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Risky, Tony-Winning "Next To Normal" Burns Up The Stage

I was fortunate to catch the breathtaking contemporary musical "Next to Normal" at the end of its one-week run in Chicago last weekend. It is the best night I spent in live theater since "Billy Elliot", which gave this musical some real competition for the 2009 Tony Awards. While "Billy Elliot" nabbed the majority of awards that year including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical, "Next to Normal" was a supremely worthy contender, earning the wonderful Alice Ripley a Best Actress Award, as well as a Tony for Original Score, and a tie with "Billy" for orchestrations.

"Next to Normal" is definitely the more challenging of the two, and especially meaningful to audience members who have tried to care for loved ones who struggle with mental illness.

Before I go on I must say that "Next to Normal" is not maudlin or depressing, but extremely entertaining, moving, and musically exciting. The show takes a big risk in its subject matter: clinical depression and anxiety, delusional behavior, and electroshock therapy.  It succeeds in creating a visual and musical representation of the troubled mind of the victim, and the emotional toll this disorder has on family and friends. And it's sad and funny in appropriate measure.

For me, this was more than a theatrical experience, at times holding me in a spell similar to that of Freudian therapeutic psychodrama. I had to hang on to every development, searching for the closure and certainty that I am unable to find in my own struggles with family mental illness.

This is a story about a nondescript middle-class family whose wife and mother, Diana (Ripley)is suffering deep depression. The play renders the "normalcy" of this unit in the ironic opening number "Another Day", which introduces Dan, her husband (Asa Somers), and teen-aged son and daughter, Gabe and Natalie (Curt Hansen and Emma Hunton), who are dealing with the tribulations of young adulthood while trying to make sense out of the sudden, frightening and confusing change in their family dynamic.

As a foil to the high drama, a "normal" relationship develops between Natalie and a boy in her class (Henry, played by Preston Sadlier). The scenes between them form a mini play-within-a-play, and stand on their own as entertaining and charming.

In an early scene in Act One, as birthday cake is lighted and carried onstage, the play pulls the rug out from the audience, when something is revealed about a character that spins the play into a whole new direction; in effect, creating a feeling of disorientation not unlike what the suffering woman must experience.

So many elements: Diana's psychiatric treatment; the clinical jargon incorporated into honest but humorous lyrics; the parallels between Diana and Emma's lives and personalities; Dan's pathetic attempt to salvage their crumbling marriage; Gabe's physical, sensual movement through each scene in an almost seductive encouragement for his mother; and an unresolved trauma in the past; all of these come together to form this kaleidoscopic and beautiful work.

The staging is complex and amazingly fluid. A three-level set of the family home is done in chrome and wood and translucent surfaces, with strong lighting, and graphics done in dots resembling newsprint up close.  It successfully depicts a cold, uncomforting world, and suggest Diana's hyper-reality and her sensitivity to light and detail.

The story moves seamlessly between levels of the stage, and from past to present. Actors move furniture during transitions and the effect is almost invisible. Credit must go to Director Michael Grief for keeping the show moving briskly and keeping the energy high even in more reflective moments; and to Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, whose lyrics and music keep us laughing, while  the characters' thoughts and feelings are clearly communicated. During scenes of desperation and resignation, they allow us moments of catharsis. Both deservedly picked up a Pulitzer Prize for their work here.

This play is an actor's dream, and the cast is flawless.  Each one is provided his or her big musical moment, and every one brings on with heat and passion, never grandstanding but always in service to the character.  Ripley is amazing in a demanding role, Asa Somers is heartbreaking as the helpless husband, and all of the young performers held the stage admirably.  I will look for all of them in future work.

Anyone who has seen a mother or other loved one deteriorate due to depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental decline, knows that there needs to be a time to mourn the person who once was, and who is unlikely to return. The progression of the disorder, and the changes in behavior and personality of the loved one, makes it seem as though the person has died.  The remaining physical presence keeps the survivors from doing the emotional work necessary to cope and to adjust to a new reality.

In a few stark scenes, some of them musical interludes, "Next to Normal" offers a look at characters caught in this process of non-mourning, which can turn into resentment, and then unbearable regret.  It also offers us a glimpse at healing.  A scene between Mother and Daughter, where both are pleading for understanding from each other, with the mother apologizing, and the daughter unsure about being hurt again, set me to silently sobbing...The poor man behind me must have thought I was having a seizure, until I heard him, too, sniffling unashamedly.

But then, earlier, I enjoyed one of the biggest laughs of the year, in a sequence in which Diana first meets her new Psychiatrist, Dr. Fine (Jeremy Kushner)and their sudden mutual attraction is captured in imaginative bursts of heavy metal  and colored concert lighting and politically incorrect doctor-patient physicality. The effect was surprising and delightful, and very, very funny.

It was probably an ingenious idea to allow Diana's character to relate to an imaginary character, one who represents her inability to grasp reality, in a private hell of wondering what might have been. At times, I wondered what the play might have been if this character had not been ever-present.  I thought at times that the play took an easy way out with this "explanation".

In the end, even my occasional impatience with the reappearance of the character (NOT the performer, who was attractive and athletic and sang the part well) worked for the show.

I would have created a final scene in which Diana actually talks to this character, and says goodbye.  But I know now that it would have been wrong.  To leave this part of  "Next To Normal" open-ended was the most honest and realistic way to go. It honors the uncertainty of diagnosis, the uncertainty even of the success of treatment, and reminds us that we have to be aware of the private worlds of mental illness, in order to truly understand, and care.

If "Next to Normal" plays near you, don't hesitate.  See it and send me your comments.


  1. I've never seen this, and never shall at least not soon(curse my South American location) but I LOVE the cast recording. I'm still not sure the music is a masterpiece, but it's excellent. From "I Am the One", to "Maybe", "How Could I Forget", I Dreamed A Dance" GAH. So many good songs. Glad you liked it (although I saw an excerpt of a performance by Marin Mazzie and she sounded even better than Ripley.

  2. Andrew..where are you, by the way? Wish you could join us here for a few shows. You will like "Next to Normal"! Wonder if it is good material for a film?

  3. I'm in Guyana (so hot here right now I think I might get heat-stroke. Just kidding...maybe.)

    The book itself would make a good film, but I think it's generally sung through so it would be tough making the music work (and the music is brilliant, so that'd be a shame.)