I had been thinking that I knew well the musical Next to Normal having heard the cast recording several times and last year having seen a touring version featuring Alice Ripley. She’d starred in it on Broadway, winning a Tony for her performance. But only when I experienced a new production by Pittsburgh’s Carnivale Theatrics did I realize why this Pulitzer prize-winner deserves so much praise. Director Justin Fortunato and a fine cast bring it home with intelligence, clarity and depth, singing with fine voices, leaving a stronger impression than what I’d seen and heard before.
Brian Yorkey's story certainly seems unlikely for a musical, dealing with a suburban mother struggling with bipolar disorder and how that affects her family. This dark side of life includes the death of a son, attempted suicide, drug abuse and swipes at the excesses of pharmacology and psychiatry. It could be the stuff of opera. The insightful work expands the idea of what’s possible in a serious musical, made meaningful by Yorkey’s trenchant lyrics and the flowing, sometimes urgent music by Tom Kitt.
Calling it a “rock musical,” oversimplifies. Kitt came up with a wide range of melody and rhythm, creating, for example, wonderful, multi-voice harmonies for what is a nearly sung-through score.
Yorkey’s script suggests that the role of a traditional wife and mother, Diana in this case, is fraught with emotional perils, without directly saying that such a woman needs more definition to find life meaningful. Yet it implies that a child’s death, such as Gabe’s, in those circumstances can throw her confined world into profound disarray. Added to that weight, a second, living child, like Natalie, may be unintentionally shunted aside. And with a house full of drugs to medicate the parent, that child could find them a different answer for life. Parallel dysfunctions, one unforeseen, the other chosen. Moreover Yorkey regularly overturns expectations, such as having Natalie’s boy friend Henry first seem thoroughly unconventional, yet emerging as the most stable person in these relationships. Yorkey tells everything cogently and exceptionally.
Director Fortunato evokes thorough substance and compelling singing from his cast. He also adds meaningful movement, such as having Gabe stride and hover like a clinging ghost, yet when Gabe’s hold over memory diminishes, he moves as if his bones no longer work right.
Erich Lascek sings superbly portraying Dan, Diana’s husband. So do Kevin Bianchi as Henry and Billy Hepfinger interpreting two different doctors. Their acting equals such excellence.
Daina Michelle Griffith has the taxing, complex role of Diana. She too sings in fine voice. Though doing everything capably with unflagging skill, I felt she never got beneath the surface on opening night. And she seemed too young for the part, never coming across convincingly as a mother of teenage children.
Robert Neumeyer led a small, unseen musical group which played very well. Alas, the musicians are not identified in the program book but I assume Neumeyer is a pianist. Speaking of program books, here is another example of giving the audience no printed information about the creators of the source of the production.
Brian Yorkey’s theatre credits include Making Tracks, which has played Off-Broadway and regionally; the musical adaptation of Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet and the new country musical Play It By Heart. He co-created Bears, a new series for the Logo network and has directed Off-Broadway.
As for Tom Kitt: he composed the score for the musical High Fidelity and for the play From Up Here. He has been a music director and conductor on Broadway since 2002, beginning with Debbie Does Dallas:The Musical. He was the music supervisor for Sherie Rene Scott's Everyday
Rapture and music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger for the musical American Idiot. Plus he composed the score for New York's Public Theatre Shakespeare in the Park’s production of The Winter's Tale, in July 2010. (Wikipedia)
Despite the regrettable oversights, everything in the impressive performances honors both men.
Next To Normal continues to July 1st at New Hazlett Theatre, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. 1-877-TICKETS. (1-888 718 4253) or www.showclix.com.