The multi award-winning musical Next to Normal (it even garnered a Pulitzer) grabs you in the essential organs—gut, heart, brain—from the first power chord and doesn’t let go until the last choral note of the finale “Light” sears into your memory.
Tom Kitt’s bristling contemporary rock score, combined with lyricist and librettist Brian Yorkey’s smart and smarting lyrics and book, make for a raw, unnerving experience. This rock-anthem intensity fits, given the subject matter of the show—unquenchable mental illness and the effect it has on a suburban family.
Not the usual breezy Broadway fare, but Next to Normal is very much in keeping with the more sober mien of many modern musicals—Spring Awakening, Fun Home, Caroline, or Change come to mind. The miraculous thing about all of these shows is that they sound depressing on paper, but the live experience invigorates, provokes and in a weird way, is life-affirming.
Center Stage’s version, under the fevered direction of David Schweizer, affirms the manic magnificence of Kitt and Yorkey’s words and music in a visually stunning production that, like the bipolar disorder it portrays, has moments of brilliance and dysfunction. On the former side is the set by Caleb Wertenbaker, a two-level modernist structure that is as streamlined and orderly as the main character’s brain is chaotic.
A show this intense does not need over-miking or sound design cranked up to a This is Spinal Tap-style “11.” That’s what happens in the first act especially, when we first meet Diana (Ariela Morgenstern), a wife and mother who has battled manic-depression, anxiety, delusions and unchecked grief for more years than she cares to remember. One of her most clear-eyed songs, “I Miss the Mountains,” is a soulful and stirring ballad about missing the highs and delicious extremes of mania and how banal being stable can be.
Diana is flip, feisty and acutely aware of her behavior and how it tortures and confounds her, as well as how it pains her ever-supportive husband Dan (Michael Winther) and her teenage daughter Natalie (Kally Duling), who is experiencing her first romance with a sweet stoner named Henry (Matthew Rodin) as well as stirrings of adolescent rebellion.
Diana has been through therapy, mood-altering drug cocktails of every combination and experimental treatments, but nothing seems to quell the cement in her brain or the voices in her head.
One aspect of her illness is particularly poignant: Gabe (Justin Scott Brown), an idealized figure from her past who seems to understand her better than anyone. Gabe is a magical, powerful enabler—a refuge from her psychosis. She cannot let him go, which suits Gabe just fine since he refuses to fade into memory, expressed in his fist-pumping anthem “I’m Alive.”
Even though Next to Normal resembles a pop rock opera in its sung-through momentum, the director seems to take a grand opera approach to the material, with frenzied belting and over-the-top phrasing from the get-go until you feel almost pummeled and assaulted. This musical requires more artistry, less ballast. It is not supposed to be one continuous mad scene.
NEXT TO NORMAL
Closes November 16, 2014
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $10 – $64
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Morgenstern has a considerable opera background and is terrific and controlled in the middle registers. The upper registers, however, are often wobbly and the same goes for Duling. This overwrought singing style that seems imposed on them sometimes reduces the show to two screechy, hysterical females and the steady, sensitive males who have to contend with them. Funny, the other two productions of Next to Normal this critic saw did not contain even a hint of misogyny.
Once everyone relaxes a little, the show begins to hit its stride. Winther skillfully articulates the quiet desperation of a man trapped in a half-life, waiting for things to get better. Morgenstern captures the fierce intelligence, prickliness and toxic charisma of Diana, echoes of which we see in Duling’s performance as Natalie—whose biggest fear is that she is going to end up like her mother. Rodin’s Henry provides an endearing, laid-back foil to Natalie’s neuroses.
Two rockstar turns are provided by Brown as the soulful Gabe, a fireball of potential, and Matt Lutz as the magnetic, Svengali-like shrink Dr. Madden.
More than a bipolar musical, Next to Normal is about grief, loss and how memories are both a balm and a wound. With melody, melancholia and keen wit, it shows ways in which mental illness seeps into lives beyond that of the sufferer.
Next to Normal . Music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey . Director: David Schweizer . Musical Director: Darren Cohen . Featuring Ariela Morgenstern, Kally Duling, Justin Scott Brown, Matthew Rodin and Michael Winther . Set design: Caleb Wetenbaker . Costume design: David Burdick . Lighting design: Aaron Black . Sound design: Ryan Rumery . Choreography: Dan Knechtges . Projection design: Driscoll Otto . Stage manager: Captain Kate Murphy . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
NEXT TO NORMAL
Closes Nov. 16
Jayne Blanchard . DCTheatreScene affirms the manic magnificence of Kitt and Yorkey’s words and music in a visually stunning production
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Anthony C. Hayes . Baltimore Post Examiner Less than lyrical rock musical meanders aimlessly at Centerstage
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld enjoyed it so much, I’m going to return to see it again!
Gina Jun . DCMetroTheaterArts Spectacularly daring, brilliantly unconventional and bittersweet,
Amanda Gunther . TheatreBloom The strongest performances were delivered surprisingly from the supporting characters
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