SpeakEasy's "Next to Normal": Poles Apart from the Norm

“Next to Normal”, the 2009 Broadway musical about a damaged woman suffering from what was once called manic-depressive mental illness, defies classification just as it (almost) defies description. In its defiantly through-composed form it is undeniably operatic, but its story is intimate and immediate. Its music (deservedly honored with Tony awards for both score and orchestration) is modern but not really rock, powerful and memorable. Yet, even with some three dozen musical numbers, it yields not a single stand-alone standard. While it has moments of humor, mostly in the form of irony, it is decidedly not a musical comedy; rather, it’s the theater’s first truly bipolar musical, in more ways than two.

It is also one of the few musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a feat matched only three times in the last three decades, the others being “Rent” and “Sunday in the Park with George”, and only eight times in the entire history of the Pulitzer. Nominated for eleven Tony Awards, it won only three, including Best Actress Alice Ripley, in a performance that was truly legendary. It was the year of “Billy Elliot” (which shared the award for orchestration with “Next to Normal”) which had fifteen Tony nominations and won ten of them. Nonetheless, “Next to Normal” was a bona fide hit, both critically and commercially. Thus the news that it would be part of SpeakEasy’s season this year was met with high expectations.

As in other aspects of life, nothing succeeds like exceeding expectations. This current version is all a serious theatergoer could reasonably hope for in a regional production, and then some. Not only is it among the finest in a long history of unforgettable SpeakEasy performances, but in at least one significant aspect, it actually betters the original. Director Paul Daigneault outdoes himself (and with musicals this is no small feat), managing to broaden the focus from an individual crisis to a shared family one, which is a truer depiction of the communal influence of the disease than was conveyed on Broadway. Kerry A. Dowling as Diana, the bipolar wife and mother, is better than we’ve ever seen her (also no small feat), but generously shares the stage with an incredibly talented ensemble. In this version, we truly feel the pain shared by the whole family as they deal with her inability to cope, to think, to feel. Above all, “Next to Normal” is about being there for one another. Michael Tacconi as her treasured son Gabe, whom she insists must be there for her, Sarah Drake as Natalie, her almost invisible daughter, craving the attention that her mother completely sucks out of the atmosphere, and Michael Levesque as Henry, Natalie’s unflaggingly sweet boyfriend, are amazing, especially given that they are all current or recent college graduates. Chris Caron ably fills the roles of two of Diana’s practitioners. Then there is Christopher Chew as Dan, the faithful husband and father, whose survival depends on repression, what he calls a “slower suicide”; as he also sings, “who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope or maybe the one who’ll still hope?”. Chew’s acting here is a revelation.

It’s truly gratifying to see such a wonderful work presented in this astonishing production. The music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are perfectly served by Music Director Nicholas James Connell, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg and Sound Designer Aaron Mack. The Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, as well as the Projection Design by Seaghan McKay are brilliant, even if occasionally distracting (as they were on Broadway, so perhaps this is part of the care plan).

This is no romanticized view of mental illness and the stigma with which society often views it, but a balanced presentation of the complexity of treatments (including what used to be referred to as electric shock therapy) for bipolar disease, ironically most often experienced by women and treated by men. Medications are a trade-off, what with their frequent side effects, requiring intelligent choices. As Diana puts it when she is medicated to the point of not feeling anything, she misses the mountains, the magic of the manic days, as well as the pain. (Her therapist’s response to her lack of feeling: “patient stable”). She wonders “what happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain or in my blood but in my soul?”

Toward the end of the play, Diana, still wounded but hopeful, comes to a decision that rather than have chance take her, she’ll take a chance. Earlier she had said that she had “seen this movie, and I walked out”. As she carries out her decision, she sings that “the price of love is loss, but still we pay…the darkest sky will someday see the sun”. As Natalie put it, one doesn’t “need a life that’s normal, but something next to normal would be okay”. Though some hurt never heals, and some ghosts are never gone, in the end “there will be light”. In this production, the precise term would be incandescence.