Story: It’s a typical morning at the Goodman household. Dan is getting ready to leave for work, while Diana rouses their son and daughter for school. It becomes quickly apparent, though, that all is now well when Diana begins to make sandwiches on the kitchen floor.
Diana has suffered from bipolar disorder for 16 years. Dan dutifully helps as much as he can, urging Diana to keep taking the medicine she’s been prescribed for her condition. Their children deal with the illness in their own ways, too. Daughter Natalie stresses about her studies and throws herself into her music as she prepares for a piano recital, while their son seems self-centered and impervious to his mother’s difficulties.
While Natalie’s life is brightened by Henry, a classmate who takes a shining to her, Dan and Diana visit a pair of psychiatrists, one of whom advocates electroconvulsive therapy to bring a sense of normalcy to Diana’s life. That result would be welcome in the Goodman home, or even something “next to normal,” as Natalie states with genuine hope.
Highlights: A musical about depression and mental illness seems unlikely at first thought. Yet, composer Tom Kitt and author/lyricist Brian Yorkey make it work effectively in their two-act rock musical that premiered Off-Broadway in 2008 before heading to Broadway in 2009 for a successful, two-year run.
Their engaging, affecting show garnered an Outer Critics’ Circle Award, Drama Desk Awards and 11 Tony Award nominations, winning three, including one for Best Original Score. It then was accorded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.
Two years ago a moving touring production played the Fox Theatre. Now New Line Theatre is presenting a strong local premiere that shrewdly utilizes its cozy performance space to better capture the intimacy of the work.
Other Info: Next to Normal is a cerebral, up-close-and-personal account of mental illness, with a cast of six and a small accompanying orchestra that in New Line’s presentation consists of a half-dozen musicians. Seeing it at the Washington University South Campus Theatre accentuates the personal nature of the work in a way the sprawling touring production could not do.
On the down side, once again the New Line band all but drowns out the singers far too often. Kitt’s music is infectious and consistently appealing, much like his score for High Fidelity, but sometimes Yorkey’s sophisticated lyrics can be hard to discern over the musical ensemble’s volume. Hopefully that will be rectified in future performances.
Director Scott Miller and associate director Mike Dowdy splendidly bring the subject matter and the cast directly to the audience in this intimate version, which plays out on Scott L. Schoonover’s whimsical set that may represent reality in Diana’s mind, with lamps and doors affixed in sundry directions in the background, courtesy of Alison Helmer’s thoughtfully assembled props.
It’s all bathed in Sean Savoie’s complementary lighting design. Amy Kelly provides costumes that match the age and/or professions of the characters and Kevin Miko adds sound to the effort.
Kimi Short brings a fine vocal styling to Diana’s ballads as well as some of the harder-edged tunes, but her acting in the focal role is more sufficient than stirring. Jeffrey Wright adds satisfactory support as her loving husband Dan in both singing and acting elements, and Zachary Allen Farmer is both amusing in Diana’s fantasy moments and straightforward as Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden offering their professional counsel.
There is some surprisingly strong work by young Mary Beth Black as Natalie and Joseph McAnulty as Henry. Both youngsters are quite convincing in their roles, and Black demonstrates a fine voice as well.
The real strength in this production, however, is Ryan Foizey as the mischievous Goodman son. Foizey smoothly glides around the stage, lithely leaping its small staircases or nimbly flowing through the central performing area with an intriguing and beguiling interpretation and a smooth, accomplished vocal style that brings out the best of the intoxicating music.
There’s an appealing use of strings in conductor/pianist Justin Smolik’s band, which features cellist Ethan Edwards and violinist Nikki Glenn as well as guitarist D. Mike Bauer, Dave Hall on bass and percussionist Clancy Newel, even if they’re too loud at times for clarity’s sake.
New Line’s artistic director Miller has a keen eye for what makes a particular musical work best, often finding hidden gems and mining their potential to sparkle. Even with this Pulitzer Prize-winning show he’s been able to accentuate the delicate emotions that are laid bare in Next to Normal.
Musical: Next to Normal
Group: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: March 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23
Tickets: $10-$20; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg