Next To Normal | 4.12-24.11

All of this sounds dreadfully dreary, and some of it is. In fact, I heard a woman leaving the theatre saying, “I don’t know. It was so depressing; all those family issues.” Well, yeah. It is a downer, but the ending is cautiously hopeful, even triumphant, but not in the usual way.

 

 

When something is so awful that we don’t even want to give it expression, we call it “unthinkable.” But leaving something unspoken doesn’t prevent it, and when the “unthinkable” happens to Diana (Alice Ripley) and Dan Goodman (Asa Somers), she literally loses her mind.

That said, she has had a lot of help over the 16 years she has spent wandering in the wilderness. She has swallowed a pharmacopeia of “mother’s little helpers”; in fact, one of the songs in this decidedly unconventional musical is called “My Psychopharmacologist and I.” (Depending on when they were written, this could be a play on “The Wizard and I” from Wicked—a more hopeful journey into a psychedelic world offered by the same producer.)

Diana is depressed and, apparently, drug-resistant. She’s tried everything in the chemical spectrum and seen numerous therapists. When she comes to Dr. Madden (later Dr. Fine, both played by Jeremy Kushnier) she’s ready to give up. The former starts with another drug regimen; when that ends in near-disaster, she starts electroconvulsive (a.k.a.) shock therapy (ECT) with the “rock star” of the psychiatric world: the magnetic but frightening Dr. Fine.

Dan has weathered the storm in a way that appears to be more, well, normal, than Diana’s breakdown, but he has been rendered emotionally impotent. He is what is now called an “enabler” in the jargon: He drives Diana to her therapy sessions when she is too anxious to do so, for example. He bemoans the younger Diana’s independence his now-middle-aged wife has lost, yet he keeps pumping her up about her potential to get “well,” and lies to himself and their daughter by refusing to believe things aren’t “gonna be good.” After all these years of bi-polar episodes, he still mistakes a manic period for a cure. He’s willfully ignorant.

Meanwhile, Diana’s daughter, Natalie (Emma Hunton), is negotiating the rocky shoals of adolescence with her first boyfriend, Henry (Preston Sadler). Their story both reflects and refracts Diana and Dan’s, at one point, the men duet in singing their reassurance to the women they love (“A Promise”) in tandem. The young couple is sweet and touching, and Hunton and Sadler are wildly talented. The nearest I came to being genuinely moved by Next to Normal was following their story.

Natalie is at the mercy of an event that happened before she was even born. More than anyone, due to her age and position in the family, she is the one most affected with the least control. But Henry’s love is her bedrock, and unlike her father’s love for her mother, does not smother her, even when she gets experiments with drugs herself. But she remains, in all the ways that matter, a motherless child through most of the show.

The center of this domestic maelstrom is 18-year-old Gabe, his mother’s son. Their unnatural attachment to each other would give Oedipus pause. They aren’t literal lovers, of course, but their body language and Gabe’s magnetic attraction for Diana shapes the course of her life. He is seducing her to her darker side; to hell, in fact, but not back. She tries to address her son’s centrality in her life through therapy, but she is stymied. When Gabe convinces her to go off her meds (which she does want to do) she immediately segues into a manic period. This is fine with her (“I Miss the Mountains”) and clueless Dan (“It’s Gonna Be Good”), but of course, she crashes; still, she doesn’t quite burn.

All of this sounds dreadfully dreary, and some of it is. In fact, I heard a woman leaving the theatre saying, “I don’t know. It was so depressing; all those family issues.” Well, yeah. It is a downer, but the ending is cautiously hopeful, even triumphant, but not in the usual way. There is also a liberal helping of humorous moments and clever wordplay, which the audience thoroughly enjoyed. The Goodmans are, indeed “us,” if we had been pierced by the sharp end of fortune’s sword, but still, I found myself strangely unmoved by all of this sturm und drang, and I’m not sure why I had that reaction. Perhaps because bad things DO happen to good people, and most make it to the other side? Like Diana sings though: “[I] Just Don’t Know.”

Next to Normal is a powerhouse show. Many of the songs are punches to the gut, as well as arrows aimed directly at the heart. Some hit their marks; some don’t. Tom Kitt’s rocking score and Brian Yorkey’s clever book and lyrics were good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Actress for Ripley, whose performance is still interesting after long New York runs in workshops and on Broadway. She brings a mixture of strength and vulnerability to Diana.

The only area in which Ripley is insufficient is that her voice doesn’t seem to be up to the outrageous demands this score makes on a performer through the course of a show running over two hours, eight times a week. At opening night, she started out well, but was ragged and off-key by the end. Still, she owns the character of Diana Goodman, and her work is well worth our time.

The set is a marvel. It actually looks right on the stage at the Fox—a starkly modern three level structure in a rococo palace dedicated to excess. There are band members on the second and third tiers with panels representing the house-that-was-once-a-home inhabited by the family. These are pulled together or apart, as mood dictates, and Diana’s eyes are reflected behind the windows. So if the eyes are the windows to the soul, then her soul is trapped in this house, a “diagnosis” of sorts that she finally arrives at herself. Her sickness is one of the soul, and all those who have tried to make her well, have gone “by the book” and missed the point entirely.

The lighting design is brilliant, using all levels of intensity and colors of the spectrum to illuminate what’s going on before us, be it heavenly blue or hellish red or just a great flash of white when Diana goes through her first session of ECT. Michael Greif, director of the Broadway production, gets the credit in the touring show also.

Music director Bryan Perri makes the most of Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt’s orchestrations (music supervisor is Charlie Alterman), especially considering the limitations of the Fox’s sound system. When the performers sang at stage right, their voices were a bit muddy. There were also some enunciation problems that seemed to affect Ripley more than the others, but is isn’t necessary to catch every word to get what’s going on.

Much can be made of the names chosen for the characters: “Di,” as her husband calls her is sometimes suicidal. “Dan” is living in the lion’s den. Born shortly after catastrophe, “Natalie” has brings new hope to her father. Gabriel is sometimes angel, sometimes devil, and the doctors’ names are self-evident, as well. This gives the impression of a morality tale like Pilgrim’s Progress which, in fact, Next to Normal is. And who can say how she or he will react, if during the journey, the unthinkable becomes the reality?

Next to Normal runs at the Fox Theatre April 12-24. For more information you may call 314-534-1111 (Metrotix) or visit www.metrotix.com. Tickets are available in person at the Fox Box office, and the theatre’s website is www.fabulousfox.com.

Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 Radio and The Vital Voice.

 

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