Review of Next to Normal, TheaterWorks
A family—mother, father, son, daughter—going through the motions of their suburban, middle-class existence and singing about it. At first, the low-key comedy of this family, all centered on the stay-at-home mom, might seem a gentle send-up of patriarchy. Then we notice something’s not quite right with mom—about the time she starts making sandwiches assembly-style on the floor—and realize this isn’t an installment of “desperate housewives.” There’s a shadow lurking from the past, and it has managed to eclipse real, day-to-day life for Diana (Christiane Noll), so much so that she lives her life heavily medicated.
The toll this takes on her family—husband Dan (David Harris), daughter Natalie (Maya Keleher)—is the story here, as Diana has to live with the loss of the son (John Cardoza) she never knew, though in her mind he’s a teen capable of being more real than her long-suffering husband and sulky daughter. Sure, it’s the kind of situation that a Freudian might have a field-day with, but the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey have different fish to fry. We’re in the era of medications, and even ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, which someone thinks sounds better then “electroshock,” apparently) is prescribed for suicidal housewives who go off their meds. It all would be grimmer than it is but for the fact that Diana, for all her unresolved issues, is an entertaining sufferer of bipolar disorder. As played by Christiane Noll, she’s a strong woman who just can’t deal with certain facts, such as how her own mind and spirit can betray her despite her best efforts. Her saving grace is the forthright self she pours out in song, and Noll's performance is indeed electrifying. The other great saving grace, for the show, is that her daughter, who has more than enough of her own to kvetch about, is played with tons of charm by newcomer Maya Keleher.
I shouldn’t neglect mentioning the males, even if they seem rather ancillary to the wild mood swings of their female counterparts. As Dan, David Harris does a lot with a role that mainly comes down to being patient and understanding, until, perhaps, his façade of repression also begins to crack. As the son who won’t say die, John Cardoza is a dreamboat with a big voice, though it wouldn’t hurt for him to unstiffen a little while insisting “I’m Alive”—though his dance with mom on the verge of a major breakdown is as fluid and magical as is called for. Henry, a sort of hipster kid who woos Natalie, is fine, if overly self-effacing. While the Drs. Fine—the drug pusher—and Madden, the hot-shot ECT salesman—are both assayed by J. D. Daw with the kind of professional obtuseness that, if not part of the problem, doesn’t do much to get at the problem’s root.
Director Rob Ruggerio has done a wonderful job making this domestic and medical musical, with its requisite and recurring blasts of bathos, work at TheaterWorks where the intimacy of the staging makes the action feel all the more personal. We’re looking on at a family trying to cope and the fact that they can make a first-rate show of their suffering is all to the good. The set, complete with a turntable for moving things about in place swiftly, upper-level wings, and a backdrop that looks like a store-display of lamps and knickknacks, is never obtrusive and, with a range of color and lighting effects, a part of the quick-switching moods of the music by Tom Kitt. And a very tight band, invisible and just loud enough but not too loud—particularly effective are the drums—make the most of the score, under Adam Souza’s able direction, and Ed Chapman’s Sound Design is incredibly precise. Everyone sounds great and the casting has arrived at six voices that harmonize well and make the vocals—almost everything is sung—the show’s best feature.
In the end, I find myself, for all the talent and skill on display here, somewhat unmoved by this Pulitzer-winning musical. Time was, I suppose, it showed the way in clueing us in, not only about the lives of quiet desperation in many a dream-home, but about the resources of the musical for making music from the everyday. There are many effective numbers that lay out the levels of trauma here—“He’s Not Here,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” “I Dreamed a Dance,” “Didn’t I See This Movie?”, “Song of Forgetting,” “Why Stay?”, “A Promise”—but much of it serves to remind that we have seen this movie, or some version of it. Melodrama in the service of mourning and melancholia seems to be a big staple of tear-jerk show-biz.
What puts Next to Normal a cut above what the screens might provide is that its Tony-winning score sets us in a pop-rock universe and won’t let us stray into the weepy strings that many a soundtrack would bathe us in. The musical numbers stay sharp and focused, for the most part, and that’s to be appreciated. Still, who knew that what all the characters most deeply desire is a non-traumatized version of the perfect little family paradise that, it seemed for a minute, the show was seeking to send up. Living “next to normal”—for theater—can also be next-door to boring.
Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music direction by Adam Souza
Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Casting: McCorkle Casting, Ltd., Associate Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth
Cast: John Cardoza, J.D. Daw, David Harris, Maya Keleher, Christiane Noll, Nick Sacks
March 24-April 30, extended to May 14