Theater Review: Next to Normal
Currently touring the U.S. is the powerhouse 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. Making its Broadway debut in the spring of 2009, the musical closed in January of this year, just short of two years. It was hailed as one of the most innovative and breathtaking musicals to hit the Great White Way since Rent, dealing with issues relevant to contemporary culture and American life, while utilizing the conventions of the musical, but with a wholly original and beautiful score.
It is one of only eight musicals to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama since the award’s inception in 1918, quite an impressive feat. As we know, musicals are seen as good-time, lighthearted, theatrical experiences that have the reputation of lacking the depth and sophistication of many plays. I would argue that they are too easily written off, and often are able to admirably gain depth in ways that are much more subversive than the average stage play. In the case of Next to Normal, there is no need for such an argument.
Telling the story of the seemingly average, suburban Goodman family, the musical is centered around the issues of mental illness and the impact it has on the lives of those who live with such illnesses and those around them. The wife and mother, Diana, lives with bi-polar disorder with not only the symptoms of the highs and lows of the illness, but also with severe depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, accompanied by delusional thinking and hallucinations.
It deals with Diana’s psychosis with a respectful and introspective look into what it means to live with a mental illness. In many ways, mental illness unfortunately remains a taboo in our society, something that too many are afraid of and unwilling to understand. Luckily, as medicine makes strides and acceptance rises, these issues are brought out from the dark. There is still a long way to go, particularly in many other parts of the world where people with treatable illnesses are still locked up without any help.
But Next to Normal doesn’t shy away from the medical profession’s difficulties in dealing with mental illness either. The doctors in the musical range from understanding to unknowing to caring only about curing the patient by turning them into a numb zombie. It is a story without easy answers and doesn’t force them or make them appear in a happy song.
Alice Ripley, who won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance, is currently touring with the production throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the night I saw it in Chicago, she was out of the show, and has remained out for a number of days. It is an incredibly vocally demanding role, and if she was suffering a cold or simply the strain of singing the part, it would be an incredibly difficult performance. I can report that her standby Pearl Sun plays the role with the intensity and vocal power required for the role.
While I was disappointed to miss Ripley in her award-winning performance, the show stands as a riveting and important piece of Theatre that is not to be missed.
To learn more about Next to Normal and to see if the tour is coming to a city near you, please visit www.NextToNormal.com.
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