Review: Next to Normal by TheaterJones

Review: Next to Normal by TheaterJones image

Normal Who?

Casa Mañana’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal is beautifully moving.

by Jan Farrington
published November 7, 2018 on
Why stay?
Why stay?
So steadfast and stolid
And stoic and solid
For day after every day
Why stay?
Why stay?
Why not simply give in
And get on with living ‘cause everyone knows you tried
But somehow, something died on the way
So tell me why you stay….

Fort Worth — A father mourns the young man he was—but not the promise he made. A mother, adrift in her mind, dreams of a dance with her handsome grown son. A daughter feels she’s fading away, her parents’ “invisible girl.” An only son defends his rightful place in the family.
Be ready for Casa Mañana’s powerful production of Next to Normal. It’s hard to watch a family in pain—but this musical’s creators do more than give us something to watch.
They give us something to feel.
Down to our toes, up through the heart, we connect with this story—absorbing the musical’s honest, open emotions into our own memories of struggle and sorrow and loss…and joy. At some moment in this show, you may find tears in your eyes and an ache in your heart. We are, all of us, way too close to this. We stand “next to” the mother, father and children onstage, “next to” these other human hearts…and sharing the hurt is both sad and healing.
Not many musicals win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but Next to Normal did in 2010—in good company with Rent (1996) and Hamilton(2016), the two other most recent winners. The award recognized something extraordinary in how this show transforms a familiar story—how many movies have we seen about a family dealing with mental illness?—into a narrative with the power to pierce through our defenses.
Tom Kitt (who composed the music and won a Tony for it) and Brian Yorkey (who wrote script and lyrics) start with one thing that makes all the difference: they put us inside their character’s heads. We ride with them, swept along on a wave of rock, pop, even country-tinged songs that are sung-through like opera with almost no dialogue between. We’re inside this family—with a direct and intimate point-of-view that changes Next to Normal from a docu-drama into an electric, heart-wringing communal experience.
Casa’s cast, dynamically directed by Eric Woodall (who also led the company’s memorable West Side Story in 2017), gives this story everything they’ve got, with gutsy performances and passionate singing—solos, duets, and trios driving the story forward. It’s hard to believe all this sound and fury is coming from a cast of six. Music director Alec Bart explodes into raucous rock mode at the right moments, but both he and sound designer Eric Norris keeps the accompaniment sensitively in balance with the singers. The band of six musicians (with Bart conducting from the piano) are a constant, half-seen presence onstage—adding to the sense that with these characters, music and thought are one.
Christine Sherrill is riveting as Diana, a wife and mother whose long battle with bipolar disorder (once called manic depression) has consumed the family for more than 15 years. Sherrill’s haunted face tells the tale: she’s tried every med, every doctor, every kind of therapy and analysis. To rid herself of the crazy “highs” she takes pills until “I don’t feel anything.” That’s as good as it seems to get: “Patient stable,” says one of her doctors, happy at last. (Darnell Abraham plays both docs with a touch of irony—and a sharp awareness of their different levels of empathy, ego, and scientific curiosity.) Sherrill’s rich, emotion-filled songs—“I Miss the Mountains” is spectacular—keep us rooting for Diana all the way, even as she reaches her most terrible crisis yet.
Diana wonders why husband Dan stays on. Charlie Pollock is heartbreaking as the good guy who once fell in love with a girl—and wishes he could find her somewhere. Dan is the cheerleader, turning the smallest glimmer of hope into an anthem, insisting this will be a “goodgoodgoodgood” day—finally. But his despair weeps through even in his cheeriest gestures, like leaving a lamp on at home: “One single sign that our house is alive/Our house, our own—so why do I live there alone?”
Diana and Dan’s children have their own stories to tell: the elusive Gabe (mercurial and intense in Luke Steinhauer’s portrayal) and the desperately unhappy Natalie (English Bernhardt gives her a curious mix of fragile and fierce), who keeps life in control with Mozart—and hopes college is her “get out of jail” card. Natalie’s isolation—her parents are hyper-focused on Diana’s symptoms and delusions—is broken by classmate Henry (Jakeim Hart is lovable and engaging), who prefers the freedom and surprise of jazz. But will Natalie let him into her life?
Next to Normal leads Diana, and us, through the modern medical world, where even temporary miracles come at a cost. Diana’s next option is ECT—electroshock. Treatment might buy some good days, but take away memories she doesn’t want to be rid of. “Didn’t I see this movie,” she protests, “with McMurphy and the nurse?” But Diana says she knows what it is “to die alive” day by day. Doesn’t something have to change?
The show’s design staff is in sync with its emotional reality, and though Seth Byrum’s scenic design is simple, it packs the right punch. Built with panels and industrial piping, the family home is disturbingly off-kilter, frozen at an alarmingly tilted angle as if suspended between upright and destroyed. Chairs are seen through the upper windows, suspended in air, unmoored from any purpose. Warmed at the right moments by David Neville’s lighting, the home can become cool and clinical for Diana’s medical visits (a combination of rolling metal chairs and stark lighting do the trick), or theatrically spotlit for a final song that includes all the characters. Tammy Spencer’s costumes and Catherine Petty-Roger’s hair and makeup maintain our sense that these characters could be our neighbors, friends, coworkers.
We can’t say too much about Next to Normal’s trajectory without giving its secrets away. In the end, in rare moments of clarity and decision, Dan and Diana move toward a changed future, and Diana and Natalie get down to basics. Life, they admit, won’t ever be perfect—but there’s a hope of it becoming something better, something real and tough and loving:


I don’t need a life that’s normal
That’s way too far away
But something next to normal
Would be okay….


If only we could sing through the pain in our own lives.
The late Carrie Fisher, writing about herself and her family, said living with bipolar disorder was “not unlike a tour of Afghanistan”—an all-consuming fight requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage.
They should, she added, “issue medals” along with the meds.
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Photo credit Curtis Brown Photography