Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley, and Asa Somers in Next to Normal. Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
It takes a lot for a piece of theater to genuinely surprise me any more. I've seen so much theater, and get involved in the nuts and bolts of storytelling and production myself with my own scripts. So when a theater production puts one over on me, and actually has me enjoying being pysched out, that's a rare and pretty neat trick. The national touring company of the Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical Next to Normal surprised me not once but repeatedly throughout the evening.
But Next to Normal isn't simply a cleverly rigged puzzle box. There's a deep emotional connection going on between the play and its audience as well. Just like I'm not often surprised any more, I'm also not often moved—to laughter, to tears, to sighing, to sitting on the edge of my seat in suspense. Next to Normal pulled all of that out of me, too—my heart and brain spinning at once. It's a gorgeous piece of theater. It richly deserves all the awards that have been thrown at it over the last few years.
So, what's Next to Normal about—and how do I tell you without giving the game away? Fear not, this shall be relatively spoiler-free. But first, some things I hardly ever do...
I hardly ever stand at the end of a play. When the cast came out to take their bows, the friend who accompanied me asked, "Are we standing?" We stood and applauded.
I hardly ever buy a musical cast album, or libretto. For Next to Normal, I made a beeline for the merchandise booth—at intermission, before I even knew how the thing was going to end yet. I bought both.
The music is powerful and lovely and has a lot of intriguing variety to it. The lyrics and libretto are funny and smart. The performances just keep knocking you back on your heels. Every time you think you have these characters figured out, they throw you another curveball. It's incredibly addictive.
Next to Normal starts out as if it's going to be a rock musical spin on standard-issue suburban angst. There's Diana (Tony winner Alice Ripley), who seems like a slightly overwhelmed wife and mother. There's Dan (Asa Somers), who seems like a slightly clueless husband and father. There's Gabe (Curt Hansen), their strapping athletic teenage son. There's Natalie (Meghann Fahy during week one of the run here, Emma Hunton in week two), their socially awkward musical prodigy of a teenage daughter. The family's day starts normally enough, until Diana suddenly starts her own manic assembly line of sandwich making...on the kitchen floor. Diana is more than just a little overwhelmed. In fact, she has a series of doctors (the key ones all portrayed by Jeremy Kushnier) providing her with the necessary therapy and prescriptions to keep her on a relatively even keel.
Daughter Natalie has attracted the attention of a genial slacker classmate named Henry (Preston Sadleir). Try as she might to keep Henry from meeting her peculiar family, eventually Henry gets pulled into an impromptu family dinner. And that's when the real whopper of a surprise gets pulled out. It makes the audience reevaluate everything they've seen up to that point, and spins the rest of the play off into much different territory. Let's just say Diana's problems go a lot deeper than garden variety suburban ennui, or even the phrase bipolar disorder. The focus of the family on Diana's problems has the unintended side effect of making Natalie feel more and more isolated, at precisely the time she starts worrying about whether what her mother has is a family gift that keeps on giving.
Though classified as a rock musical, with a driving rhythm that keeps the story barrelling forward, the reason the Tony-winning score bewitched me so was because of its ability to incorporate other kinds of musical storytelling. Key moments of variety included a folk music lament by Diana ("I Miss The Mountains"), a melancholy music box waltz for mother and son ("I Dreamed a Dance"), and a love song by a husband for his wife ("A Light in the Dark") that was so beautiful it had me in tears, right as the play reached intermission. That last number isn't just beautiful because of the tune or the way it was sung, though both those assessments are true enough. It was another of those surprises I keep talking about. This is a love song where a man asks his wife to do something horrible in the hopes that it can save not just her, but their marriage, and the family. It's all the more lovely and horrible because the audience can feel him winning the argument, and none of us are entirely sure he should. Like so many pivotal moments in the story, it feels like both a victory and a mistake.
In fact, act one burned through so much story (without ever feeling rushed) that I found myself wondering, what can they possibly do in act two? I needn't have worried. The play not only explores what it means to be a family, but keeps peeling back the layers of complicated questions like:
How much emotion is too much emotion? How little is too little?
How long can you grieve without endangering the rest of your life, or your sanity?
If you can eliminate a painful memory, should you?
How do you build a new life from scratch?
Is it possible for something or someone which gives you comfort to ever be bad for you?
How do you know when to let go, or walk away, and when to stand and fight?
All these questions get teased out in the give and take between husband and wife, parent and child, lovers and friends—and the answers are intriguing, amusing, and constantly shifting, right up until the conclusion of the play. The vision of composer Tom Kitt and librettist/lyricist Brian Yorkey teeters so daringly (and often) at that place where the whole thing could go off the rails that my friend noticed me leaning all the way forward in my seat in the middle of act two. As if I were willing the play from where I sat, "Oh, please don't screw up."
It never did.
My friend noticed not too long after that I had settled back in my seat again. I relaxed, knowing I was in very capable hands. Not just the hands of the authors, but the hands of all those great performers and musicians, and the Tony-nominated directing and design team. Michael Greif's nimble direction had that cast zipping up and down all over the wondrous three story set of shifting scaffolding designed by Mark Wendland, lit to dazzling effect by Kevin Adams. Spectacle was always in service of the story, never burying it or shoving it aside.
It's wonderful and exciting to see something so different, and yet still so recognizably human. You should really see it for yourself. You deserve a surprise this good in your theatergoing life. I'm exceedingly glad they paid us a visit.
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