Next to Normal is next to perfect
Nearly all art forms go through constant changes and growth. Musical theatre, for instance, has gone from silly vaudeville to the gorgeous, memorable music of George and Ira Gershwin; through the uneven but hauntingly-singable works of Rodgers and Hammerstein to the occasionally high art of Stephen Sondheim, who covers such serious themes as divorce, betrayal, adultery, aging, and even operatic bloodshed (as in the great Sweeney Todd).
Next to Normal, which Dancap Productions has wisely brought to the exquisite Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts — but only until July 30, so get there as soon as you can — is an amazing, daring musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. You may not have seen those names before, but the fact that this “musical play” — which is almost entirely sung through, like Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd — won three Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama may impress you, even if the short supply of easily-remembered tunes doesn’t.
I am almost reluctant to mention the subject, since it could scare you away, but the title of the show might give you a clue: Next to Normal is about a family suffering from its youthful matriarch’s mental illness — probably bi-polar disorder — and the devastating impact of this brutal (but hardly uncommon) affliction.
The curtainless set is stunning, with the tiny “orchestra” (more like a rock band) sprinkled across four different areas of the handsome tri-level stage. And the lyrics could easily break your heart, as they often did mine.
“I miss the mountains,” sings the Tony-Award-winning actress/singer Alice Ripley, here completing a cross-country tour after the show recently closed in New York. What a powerful image of a mentally unbalanced woman whose drugs, now no longer working for her, make her miss “the highs and lows” she once both loved and feared. “I miss my life!” she sings mournfully, and the audience fights back tears.
There are some extremely funny one-liners, like when the long-suffering wife/mother admits to her long-suffering husband that she has flushed the many dozens of pills she has been downing for nearly two decades down the toilet: “Well, we have the happiest septic tank on the block.”
How many families in the world have not been touched by mental illness, in one form or another? Of course, mental health is hardly this beautiful work of art’s only subject; one helpless husband/father admits, for example, his own weaknesses in song: “I was a child, raising a child.”
The final curtain hardly leaves everything resolved in the pat, happily-ever-after tradition of most musicals, although it clearly leaves us with some hope: the song, echoing the strange title of the show (“Something next to normal would be okay”), will move you as deeply as most of the others.
This is truly unforgettable theatre, and the stand-out performances of Ms. Ripley as Diana, Emma Hunton as Natalie, her struggling teenage daughter, and the pair of psychiatrists, both played by the excellent Jeremy Kushnier (whom most will recognize as one of the Jersey Boys from the superb Canadian production by Dancap of the past few years), are most memorable.
Not every movie need make us laugh, and not every musical need send us off singing into the night. We are often most alive when we encounter art that challenges us, shakes us, makes us more human.
Bravo, Dancap, for bringing this fascinating, daring show to the most beautiful and comfortable theatre in the city.
Allan Gould is Post City Magazines' theatre critic.