Thursday, June 09, 2011

Next to Normal

Mind blowing, must see NEXT TO NORMAL at Palace/PhSquare

When I first saw the New York production of NEXT TO NORMAL, the Brian Yorkey (books and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) musical, which was the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, I had a set of questions.

As a theatre reviewer I was, of course, curious about the value and production quality of the show. As a mental health counselor, I wondered how a musical was going to grapple with the subject of mental illness without a simplistic, mocking or evasive approach. My answers to both questions were quickly answered.

NEXT TO NORMAL is a well-crafted and outstanding script. It is an emotional and accurate depiction of the problems of coping with bipolar disorder and situationally-induced depression.

The Pulitzer Prize Board called the show "a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals." From my perspective, and as evidenced by the screaming standing ovation at the opening night of the show at the Palace Theatre, they were right on. Remember, the reaction was for a serious-themed musical, not a light escapist piece of fluff.

NEXT TO NORMAL, which in its early development was entitled, FEELING ELECTRIC, due to the use of ECT (electric convulsive therapy), commonly known as shock therapy, concerns a mother who struggles with a worsening bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. The musical also addresses such issues as grieving a loss, the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the wake of psychological problems, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and teenage angst.

Sounds like a downer. No way! Yes, it showcases disturbing issues, but it does so in a probing way that adds humor and illuminates truth. It is realistic and shares the fact that 1 in 17 American adults suffer a serious degree of mental illness which not only affects them, but their families.

The play starts as no other musical has. Suburban mother Diana Goodman waits up late for her curfew-challenged son, comforts her anxious and overachieving daughter, hurries off for some sex with her husband, then rises to help prepare her family for Just Another Day. But when her lunch-making takes a turn for the bizarre with sandwiches covering the table, chairs, and floor, the family realizes something is not right. From here, the story unfolds. The goings on get more and more out of sync and we watch in ever expanding awareness that this is a family in crisis.

The score is infectious, the lyrics compelling. The songs are so integrated into the story that there is no separation between the spoken and sung word. This is not a speech, song, dance, speech script. It is a perfectly integrated message. The song titles develop a clear idea of the show’s content, Let There Be Light, Perfect, More…More…and More, and Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I.

The musical opened on Broadway in April 2009 to rave reviews, and ran for over 700 performances. It was nominated for eleven 2009 Tony Awards with the Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical going to Alice Ripley.

Ripley, a Rocky River native and BFA musical theatre graduate from Kent State, stars in the touring production. She is amazing. The role requires her literally to have a nervous breakdown every night. In spite of all the times she has played the role, tears flow, she transitions from mood to mood with astonishing ease. This is a performance not to be missed!

The rest of the cast is up to Ripley’s high level. Several are reprising roles they played or understudied in the Big Apple production.

Asa Somers (Dan, the husband) develops a characterization that make us wonder how he can confront the issues and stay on course. He is outstanding.

Curt Hansen, as Gage, the son, flows around the stage like a shadow. He is physically compelling, has a great voice and inhabits the role.

Emma Hunton as Natalie, the daughter, shows clearly the effect of being the survivor child who has been pushed aside due to parental grief and psychological issues.

Preston Sadleir gives a focused performance as Natalie’s druggie boyfriend. And, Jeremy Kushnier, who starred in JERSEY BOYS (which ironically will run June 22 to July 17 at the State Theatre), is professionally correct, as the two psychiatrists who attempt to treat Diana.

Though there was some instances when the band drowned out the actors, in general the music was well performed. The set creatively allows for multi-illusions as the see-through screens slide to reveal and conceal the goings-on and the three levels of scaffold encourage seeing the many angles of the action.

Capsule judgement: NEXT TO NORMAL is the highlight production of this year’s Broadway Series. This is an absolutely must see, production. Go, learn, experience a compelling script and a finely tuned production!!