The musical Next to Normal garnered a Pulitzer Prize for composer Tom Kitt and writer Brian Yorkey and high praise from critics — in part because it dealt with the ugly realities of mental illness, an unusual and courageous focus for a generally upbeat and unrealistic medium.
At the center of the plot is Diana — smart, self-possessed and slightly cynical, but, as we soon discover, fighting bipolar demons. We encounter her at the very beginning of one of the frantic episodes that periodically torment both her and her outwardly stable, upper-middle-class family. Diana’s disease can be off-putting: She’s querulous and angry, so absorbed by the rickety workings of her own mind that she can barely spare a moment’s attention for anyone else — but somehow you still empathize with her suffering and appreciate her brave and incisive attempts at humor. Diana never recovered from the loss of her first child, a son who died at eight months and would have been eighteen at the time the action begins. Because of her obsession with this lost boy, she neglects her husband, Dan, who long ago set aside his own needs to take care of hers, and her daughter, Natalie, a perfectionist high-schooler who struggles to be seen and acknowledged by her parents and senses within herself the dangerous shards of her mother’s illness. When Natalie meets seventeen-year-old stoner Henry, the structured and crystalline Mozart piano pieces she plays shatter. Henry introduces her to pot and jazz. Natalie moves beyond Henry’s tutelage to embrace musical chaos and the dozens of pills and potions in her mother’s medicine cabinet.
The Town Hall Arts production is the third version of Next to Normal I’ve seen, and it’s by far the most revelatory. One of the things that troubled me before was the heaviness of the score. Despite fine passages and some lyrical or comic moments, it tended to feel like a great wash of sound (almost every word is sung), an undifferentiated howl of grief threatening to drown everything in its path. But under Nick Sugar’s empathetic direction, all of the singers perform with subtlety and finesse. Their fine voices — and every one of them sings beautifully — aren’t overmiked; you can savor the musical dynamics, even understand the lyrics (imagine!). Donna Kolpan Debreceni’s musical direction always carries a kind of joyous skip, and she and her musicians provide a vital antidote to portentousness. I admired the artistry of the Broadway production’s gridded, multi-level set, but it did dwarf the performers. In a more intimate venue, the characters remain front and center.
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Meaning shifts slightly each time. In this production, I found myself focusing more than ever before on the family’s dead son, a hungry ghost constantly on hand to create chaos and deepen distress. He’s obviously a figment of his mother’s fevered imagination, but as played by Josh Bess — with an unusual innocence — you couldn’t help feeling he had an unearthly reality of his own: his seductiveness toward Diana and his panic when he thinks her focus on him is waning; his hostility toward his father; his gloating at his sister’s problems. Margie Lamb was a fine Diana in a previous production; now she’s even better. She owns every aspect of the role, giving us all the character’s complexities in one prickly, scintillating package. Jacquie Jo Billings is an appealing Natalie, so glowy and young at the beginning, so lost later. Ethan Knowles complements her as sweetly long-suffering Henry. Daniel Langhoff gives his all in a moving performance as weary, loving, sometimes obtuse Dan. Jared Ming humanizes Diana’s two therapists.
I understand that the uplifting final number, “Light,” sung by the entire cast, is intended to provide a sense of hope at the end of an emotionally troubling evening, but it has always felt like a cop-out on Kitt and Yorkey’s part — and it does here, too. The strength of Next to Normal lies in its clear-eyed portrayal of a horrifying illness. Diana may yet have times of stasis and calm, but it’s clear she has almost no chance for a decent, loving life. Dan has been irretrievably damaged by his wife’s madness. And the heart aches to see Natalie, once so talented and bright, on the same trajectory as her mother — and trailing poor Henry, as trapped by love as Dan, in her wake. Still, there’s a lot to celebrate in this fully realized production.
Next to Normal, presented by Town Hall Arts Center through March 15, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-794-2787, townhallartscenter.com.