It’s been a while since I’ve had a good cry. But at Drury Lane’s opening of Next to Normal on Thursday the tears started falling and they just kept coming, and afterwards rather than feeling sad I actually felt good. It was almost like a release. And that seems to play into one of the central points at the heart of this powerful show. It embraces the concept that there is liberation to be found in engaging your pain, rather than ignoring it (either through outright denial, medication, drugs, etc.). Sometimes we have to go to those dark uncomfortable places in order to truly let go. Next to Normal is an emotionally-penetrating, heartfelt and painfully honest rock-opera about a woman who is suffering from a form of bi-polar disorder and the effects that her illness has on her family, especially after she decides to stop taking her medications.
I was fortunate enough to have seen the original Broadway production back in 2009. On Broadway and in the recent National Tour (which came to Chicago in 2011), the original Diana was played by Broadway veteran Alice Ripley. Ripley went on to garner numerous awards including the Tony Award for Best Actress for her passionate portrayal of Diana Goodman. Watching Alice Ripley as Diana you felt as though you were watching a woman who was teetering on the brink of total collapse. It was thrilling. And though it’s unfair to compare the two productions, going into this one it was still very hard for me to imagine anyone else giving Diana the depth and madness that Ripley did.
However, I am very happy to say that Susie McMonagle has not only given Diana a totally different approach, but she is in many ways better than Ripley’s performance. One of the most notable differences is their voices. McMonagle is a great singer whereas Ripley had an intense vibrato which, while accurate for a woman who is mentally and spiritually broken, was tough for some audience members to sit through for 2 hours. Secondly, while Ripley seemed to mold Diana as a woman who is outwardly manic, McMonagle gives Diana an inner darkness that is chilling to behold. She’s more like the mother in American Beauty. She seems normal on the surface, but you can tell there’s something off. Under the layers she is deeply broken and slowly disintegrating. McMonagle plays Diana with a keen awareness that she’s fighting a losing battle with her madness. There is fear in her eyes as if she’s staring into an abyss of darkness. It’s fascinating to watch. But perhaps the most subtle, but profound difference between the two actresses is something that can be felt and not seen. It’s that McMonagle is a mother in real life and Ripley is not. McMonagle has that indescribable motherly instinct inside her as a real mother that Ripley was lacking. It may seem small, but on stage it makes a big difference in Diana’s interactions with her children. Diana is a mother longing for what could have been, for what should have been, and the guilt at not having done enough in the past is at the heart of her problems. With McMonagle’s portrayal it’s easy to understand why she fell so hard and is unable to climb back up.
Rod Thomas who plays Dan Goodman, Diana’s husband, gives his character a very soft carefully composed causal outer disposition that hides the frightened layers underneath. Dan has a journey in the show that mirrors his wife. He has bottled up his feelings by always focusing on his devotion to helping her. Though he loves her and cares for her deeply, his obsession with helping his wife get better is actually what’s preventing her from moving on and from allowing himself to grieve. In one song after realizing his wife has lost years of memories by receiving ECT (Electro-Shock Therapy) he sings about trying to reshape Diana and the family’s past to his liking, about rebuilding her without the painful memories. “Going to make things better than before” he sings. Though he means well, his outward demeanor is just a façade. He has that all-too-American defense mechanism of covering up pain with a smile; feeling that everything will be normal if the past is forgotten. So when the truth of what happened finally hits Dan towards the end of the show, with his guard being down, the resulting flood of emotion feels cathartic. Rod is a great singer and does a wonderful job conveying the calmness and intensity required of his character.
Callie Johnson plays the Goodman’s teenage daughter Natalie. Natalie is a distraught 16 year old girl whose basic fear throughout the show is that she’ll end up becoming her mother. This fear permeates and shapes her relationship with her newfound love interest Henry, performed flawlessly by Skyler Adams. Their young blooming relationship together gives the show a nice counterpoint that both mirrors and contrasts with the deteriorating marriage of her parents. Natalie’s goal throughout the show is also to find normalcy. She’s a teenager after all. But by the end it seems she understands that her real goal should be to figure out exactly who she is and what her road should be. And though Johnson is a great singer I would have preferred her to have given Natalie more anger and frustration towards her mother for making her feel like the “invisible girl”.
Josh Tolle, who plays their 17 year old teenage son Gabe, is a terrific singer with a pop-rock style tone to his voice, but acting-wise Tolle is lacking the playful tempting and menacing streaks that his character deserves. Tolle needs to find more of the joy in taunting his mother’s emotions and getting more confrontational and desperate directly in the face of his father who continues to outright ignore him.
Next to Normal offers a daring probe into the problems of treating patients with mental illness. The path toward healing is imperfect or “not a very exact science” as Diana puts it. In one song Diana sings of the odd relationship she has with her psychopharmacologist (superbly portrayed by Colte Julian). After 16 years of treating her he knows all of her deepest secrets, but all she really knows about him is his name. In the same song the list of her various medications comes across like a glitzy drug commercial enticing her to call many of those drugs her favorites. And in perhaps one of the most eerie moments in the show, after weeks of readjusting her medications to get it right Diana tells her doctor, “I don’t feel like myself… In fact, I don’t feel anything.” To which the doctor responds in his recorder, “Patient stable.” After a failed therapy session and a suicide attempt, her second doctor (also played by Julian) recommends the use of Electro-Shock Therapy to cure her. But this “treatment” only leads her down a more destructive path as many of her memories are wiped out and she tries to rebuild her sense of self and what happened. Even the therapist admits to her that psychiatry doesn’t have all the answers, but “it’s the best we’ve got”.
Musically, the show is done in more of a rock-opera style than musical theatre. The whole show is mostly sung, with only small bits of dialogue here and there. It’s a more fitting way to tell the story because without the music we would not only miss the subconscious thoughts being expressed, but the story would come off more like the standard TV-movies you’d see on the Lifetime channel. The music written by composer Tom Kitt keeps the tension up by not really finishing most of the songs in Act 2, no room for the story to pause to allow the audience to applauded, songs overlapping by beginning where one song ends. No pause in action. Every scene dissolves into the next, sometimes even interrupting each other. Throughout the show there are moments when an actor in one scene simply turns around and now he’s in another scene, and in another time and place. The effect is very cinematic.
It all works beautifully. The darker the emotions get in Next to Normal the more rock-and-roll the score becomes. Rock music is one of the rawest forms of musical expression, and thus a perfect way to probe the complexities inside the human psyche. It is loud and jarring which forces the audience to pay attention and doesn’t allow the characters to escape.
Aside from rock though, Kitt also managed to incorporate eras of folk, classical, some metal, standard showtunes, and even a waltz. This is a bi-polar score, emphasizing many of the character’s erratic mood swings and brilliantly allowing the music to parallel their situations: Dan’s songs tend to be steadier and only on occasion do they come forward with a burst of erratic forcefulness giving us hints that he may be more conflicted and unsettled than he’s letting on. While Diana’s songs are layered, unpredictable, bizarre, confrontational, and even hauntingly beautiful at times. Her songs reflect the mountains “highs and lows” that she sings about and the fragmentation surrounding her confused and scared state of being. The couple’s elusive teenage son, Gabe, has most of the rock-infused defiant songs that pop in your ear and won’t go away. His songs are intentionally repetitive, sometimes frustratingly so, and very loud to give you a sense of what must be cycling through the minds of the parents. While those of troubled 16-year old Natalie are that of your average rebellious teenager, veering off when she’s upset, even breaking styles mid-song, giving you a sense that she remains outside the central storyline. Her music becomes cool and toned down only when she’s around Henry.
Credit must also be given to lyricist and book-writer Brian Yorkey who gives the lyrics many deep layers hidden under simple rhymes. The opening song “Just Another Day” is a brilliant example of this. It introduces the characters in a seemingly offhand causal manner, yet the lyrics are full descriptions of uneasiness about the pressures in trying to be “normal”. Underneath it the melody goes against the composition. The music steadily gathering madness towards the end, giving us hints that there’s something not right going on. Overall his lyrics leave you with more questions than answers, some even hauntingly so. In one moment their son Gabe sings about how society uses “ECT and Electric Chair to shock who we can’t save” and how after his mother lost years of memories from the ECT treatments he sings “with nothing left to remember is there nothing left to grieve?”
And in one of the most beautiful numbers of the entire night “I Miss the Mountains” Diana laments about all the years she’s lost of being tranquilized into feeling empty inside by 16 years of various medications and misdiagnoses. The country-folk infused ballad is full of regret and yet filled with beautiful metaphors of lost highs and lows and majestic imagery. The opening lyrics describe both her yearning for her past life living free and her current distant relationship with her daughter Natalie. And when an upbeat acoustic guitar joins in at the chorus of the song a spark gleams in her eyes as she remembers her days before the medications. McMonagle tackles the moment beautifully with highly specific choices and a clear narrative arc that leads to her flushing her medications down the toilet.
In the end sometimes the best intended efforts to help those who are struggling are actually holding them back from moving on. As much as modern psychiatry can help, nothing can truly medicate a soul that is damaged.
Bottom Line: Next to Normal is highly recommended. Its daring choice of subject matter alone is reason to admire this show. But be forewarned, Next to Normal is a show for adults. And not because the “f-word” is used, but because it deals with things that only adults can understand: a marriage that is falling apart, emotional scars, weariness, regret, and some big existential questions. This is not your typical feel-good musical. Instead it’s what many have described as a “feel-everything” musical. This is not a musical where you can go to escape inside it and forget about your troubles for a couple hours; instead this is a musical where you go to make a connection. It will leave you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre. It’s really what all art should aim to do.
NEXT TO NORMAL
Running Time: 2 Hours and 20 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Runs through: October 6, 2013
Wednesdays at 1:30 PM ($35), Thursdays at 1:30 PM ($35), and 8 PM ($45), Fridays at 8 PM ($49), Saturdays at 5 PM ($49), and 8:30 PM ($49), and Sundays at 2 PM ($49) and 6 PM ($45)
Lunch and dinner theatre packages range from $50 to $74 depending on the day of the week. Student group tickets start as low as $30 and Senior Citizens start at $32 for matinees and $47 for a matinee luncheon package
Directed by William Osetek, Music Direction by Ben Johnson, Choreography and Musical Staging by Tammy Mader, Scenic Design by Scott Davis, Costume Design by Sally Dolembo, Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert, Sound Design by Ray Nardelli, Properties Design by Nick Heggestad
Music by Tom Kitt, Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Book by Brian Yorkey
Starring Susie McMonagle as Diana Goodman, Rod Thomas as Dan Goodman, Callie Johnson as Natalie Goodman, Josh Tolle as Gabriel Goodman, Skyler Adams as Henry, and Colte Julian as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden
Understudies: Patrick Rooney, Maddy La Roche, Rob Lindley, and Christine Sherrill