Curtain Call's "Next to Normal": Still Poles Away from the Norm

Sam Patch, Steve Perry & Ann McCoy in "Next to Normal"
(photo: Curtain Call Theatre)

It isn't the norm for this blog site to review community theatre productions, as they rightfully require that they be seen through a different lens from that employed in assessing more “professional” efforts. A rare exception is Curtain Call's current production (in Braintree), the musical “Next to Normal”, which merits consideration right up there with previous versions seen on Broadway and in a regional Boston company. As noted by this critic in the past, this 2009 Broadway musical is poles away from typical musical fare, especially in its subject matter, about a damaged woman suffering from what was once called manic-depressive mental illness. It 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. 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.

In this production, Director Jim Sullivan has assembled an astonishing cast, led by Ann McCoy as Diana, the bipolar wife and mother. From the moment she sang the show's opening line, “They're the perfect loving family”, it was clear that one would be witnessing a stellar performance. McCoy 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. Sam Patch, as her treasured son Gabe, whom she insists must be there for her, Meghan Ryan as Natalie, her almost invisible daughter, craving the attention that her mother completely sucks out of the atmosphere, and Bryan George Rowell as Henry, Natalie’s unflaggingly sweet boyfriend, are all unforgettable. Kevin Fortin ably fills the roles of two of Diana’s practitioners. Then there is Steve Perry 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?”. He's a perfect match for Patch's astounding voice, Rowell's sincere sensitivity and Ryan's heartbreaking vulnerability. It's a dream cast in a nightmarish story. It's gratifying to see the memorable work presented in this production. The music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are perfectly served by Music Director Jose Merlo, Jr. and his musicians, terrific throughout their two-hour workout. The Lighting Design is by Mollie MacKenzie, Sound Design by Peter Kates, and Scenic Design by James Gross.

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. 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, there's more than enough wattage to fill the compact black box stage. In choosing such challenging material and presenting it so successfully, Curtain Call Theatre gives new meaning (and depth) to the term “community theatre”.

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