How about a musical centered around depression? Sound like fun? Well “ Next To Normal” isn’t the kind of theatre you experience for fun, although it is very entertaining with a great cast, good story, original music and lyrics, and a brilliant set. But it deals with a very serious subject.
It’s about a family of four-well almost four-but I’d give it away if I said any more about that. So let’s just say there’s the mom, Diana ( Marin Mazzie) who’s being treated by several shrinks who try every means possible to rid her of her depression and anxiety.
It’s not only affecting her, but her family, as well. There’s also her husband, Dan ( Jason Danieley) and her daughter, Natalie ( Meghann Fahy). Dan is a devoted husband (unusual these days in any script), who stands by his wife no matter how she may try to push him and Natalie away.
Natalie, however, is a teen, and can’t quite come to grips with her mother’s illness, feeling alienated by both parents.
She even has trouble accepting friendship from a fellow music student, Henry ( Adam Chandler Berat), who seems to have an affinity for Natalie’s vulnerability.
Then there’s Natalie’s brother, Gabe ( Louis Hobson). Suffice it to say he’s definitely part of the story, but in a different dimension.
“ Next to Normal” tackles not only the subject of mental illness, but sex, drugs, marriage and family with a forthrightness rarely seen in musicals, made even more dynamic through the lyrics. Most of the dialogue is set to music, from hard driving rock to lyrical lullaby.
The six-piece band is divided into four sections, positioned in four locations on the stage so that it encompasses the action. You can barely see them, but their dynamic role in the production is ever evident.
The staging itself is modern industrial with three tiers representing the family residence. Upstairs panels move to the left and right to reveal additional rooms in the house, depending on who’s where. When closed, what’s revealed is a pixilated closeup of Diana’s face – the constant center of attention. The lack of color though most of the production, is a stark reminder of the bleakness of this woman’s existence.
Yes, it sounds pretty pathetic, but there is humor amid the pathos, and the actors are so focused, their vocals so strong, we’re swept into the scenario and kept glued to this family’s story right through to the unexpected ending.
With so many musicals today featuring the same old, same old, when it comes to the score, it’s refreshing to listen to imaginative music ( Tony Kitt) with clever, meaningful lyrics ( Brian Yorkey), as exemplified in these titles: “ Wish I Were Here” and “ Sing a Song of Forgetting.” These may not be songs you’ll exit the theatre singing, but they’re poignant and effective.
Kudos to Mark Wendland’s set design, Kevin Adams’ lighting and Michael Grief’s dynamic direction. This show isn’t your “normal” Broadway musical fare, but I’ll go for “next to normal” anytime.
Next to Normal
222 W. 45th St.
New York, NY 10036
Published on Dec 31, 1969