This is not an easy musical to watch. It’s intense and it deals with issues that for whatever reason, are still taboo for some. Or maybe it’s that those issues are too real for some. At one point in The Ziegfeld Theater’s impressive production of the rock musical “Next to Normal,” Diana Goodman (Emilee Starr), a suburban wife and mother who we learn suffers from bipolar disorder, shares a dance with her psychiatrist to a song called “Who Is Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I.” Now, there’s a title that doesn’t mince words in a play that fluidly moves between grief and psychological disturbance.
Indeed, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), has been praised for its vigorous take on mental illness. Coming from a family that has been deeply affected by mental illness, I can say that praise is well deserved. “Next to Normal” introduces us to a family in crisis in part because of Diana’s turbid mental state but also because of grief. And one of its finest attributes is its ability to help us grasp the many layers of familial hurt. There’s not only one thing ailing the Goodman household, nor is there one simple fix to whatever is troubling Diana. What a sonorous word is “disorder.”
The crushing toll of Diana’s grief and mental illness keeps her husband Dan (Aaron Cole) and daughter Natalie (Jenessa Bowen) struggling to find balance between compassion for her, and meeting their own basic and emotional needs. Son Gabe’s place in the family is a bit more complicated, for reasons I cannot say without spoiling an important reveal, which I must say was beautifully powerful. Luke Monday very adroitly manages to embody both Gabe’s appeal as a life-loving young man and as a subtle manipulator.
Jenessa Bowen was powerfully believable as teen aged daughter Natalie, frustrated, resentful and hurting not only because of her mother’s illness, but also because of her brother’s star status. Her pain is so vibrantly real for us in “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” She is a vocal pick me up, even in any of the shows many heavy hitting moments. Even as a gifted and classically trained pianist, she goes largely ignored by her parents as they struggle to deal with that layers of familial hurt thing. Enter pot-smoking, jazz-loving hipster Henry (Jason Baldwin) who shows Natalie the attention and appreciation she has been starved of.
Starr appears to be close in age to the actors playing her children, and so does the actor playing opposite her. I found it very difficult suspend my disbelief at the start of the show and felt confused as to why the choice to place actors within the same age range into roles as parents and children? Still, that was a directorial choice, and the fact is, Starr never lets us doubt Diana’s awareness of her illness and her frustrations at not being “normal.” Eventually I was able to get past the disbelief and accept Starr in the role. Her voice is powerful and emotive in song. In “Didn’t I See This Movie?” she prepares to undergo Electroconvulsive therapy, and she even references “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which for me, was very emotional and resonated a little too much so for my comfort. Yorkey’s lyrics and Rea’s direction pull off a pop-culture awareness that doesn’t fall into self-conscious cleverness. As refined a medical treatment as ECT has become, it’s still possible that Diana may suffer memory loss, even personality changes. There’s a reason Act 2 begins with “Wish I Were Here.”
Cole seems to be trying to bring the hope, desperation and steadfastness one expects of a husband whose beloved wife is suffering such a mental malady. But, as the show progressed I found myself getting a little irritated by Dan’s handling of Diana’s “disorder.” I think I just wanted to see more of a connection between them, or maybe there are things I just don’t like about the character and it’s because of that I found myself irritated.
I must also make mention of Austin Archer who plays the dual roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, just two of many in a seemingly unending parade who have attempted to successfully treat Diana. I have seen him only in one other production, but he made an impression on me with his ability to deliver on both acting and vocals, and very pleasingly so. He delivered again as the doctors.
Under the direction of Rick Rea, the company’s aspirations and talent come together nicely, even if not perfectly so, in this enthralling production, now in its final weekend at the Ziegfeld Theater in Ogden. The musical provides raw and emotion filled opportunities for ensembles to sing not so much together as at the same time. And although there were a few numbers where the actors seemed to have trouble with pitch and/or key, this cast nails those singing at the same time moments. The effect is that of a sometimes discordant, but still oh so rich stew of competing needs and conflicting emotions.
The band is tight in a score that rocks and rolls, but sometimes, overwhelms too. Unfortunately, the band was often far louder than those singing, but most notably so during the opening number. Even with body mics, the music often overpowered their voices. If I could make any suggestion, it would be to bring the band’s volume down so the audience can hear what’s being sung.
The set design was less industrial than that of the Broadway show and its national tour. Its look and feel portends a house that has and will continue to, become less and less a home. Rea (also the show’s scenic designer) along with lighting designers, Austin Stephenson and Christopher Shenefelt, have left room for the psychological to unfold. And unfold it does, powerfully so.
Aside from a few forgivable imperfections with the production and a program that doesn’t include scene or song information for the show, I think Next to Normal at The Ziegfeld is a dynamic, thought provoking work, and well worth seeing if you are not offended by strong language, are not afraid of the exploration of topics that challenge one’s conscience, and are willing to consent to bringing out the ugly and uncomfortable, so you and those sitting in that audience with you can have a good long look at it in the light.
NEXT TO NORMAL completes its run at The Ziegfeld Theater January 31, February 1 – 3, 2013. Tickets are $12 – $15 and available at theziegfeldtheater.com .The Zig is located at 3934 S. Washington Blvd, Ogden.