TheatreSquared continues to offer up the most challenging, sensitive theatre of the region with their season’s glittering capstone, Next to Normal, a rock musical that explodes with emotion and never lets up. This ambitious production marks new ground for the company, I believe. The cast is one of the strongest the Nadine Baum stage has seen. Amy Herzberg’s direction is precise and unencumbered. Thursday night was the preview performance, but T2’s Next to Normal came out of the gates fully fledged.
The plot is a deceptively simple all-American story of a struggling family. From the outside they are picture perfect; on the inside they are drowning. Generally, the premise revolves around a bipolar mother who is entrenched in the world of psychiatric therapies. Her devoted husband and her two children find themselves funneled into her abysmal denial, defining it and being shaped by it. By the end of the first act she realizes that there is no easy way out. No spoilers here, though. You will have to see for yourself. The complexity of her illness and its origins are the underpinnings of an electric and frightening journey. The experience of the show is an ever-unwinding path through emotional anguish, and ultimately desperation that leaves the audience gasping for air.
In 2010, Next to Normal became the first musical since Rent to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. There is no sub-category for musicals alone; it won out over all new national dramatic productions. Coming from off-Broadway in 2008, the re-tooled play retained most of the original cast but was streamlined for a harder hitting, more serious look at mental illness. I had the opportunity to see the Broadway production the following year and was nervous that the regional offering here just couldn’t compare. But, I had little to fear. This production does more than justice by the prowess of its successful predecessors.
Rita Harvey leads as the inflicted Diana and handles the role with a mesmerizing vulnerability. She seemed to be saving her voice in the first act, but by the second she was matching the rock stars around her note for note and belt for belt. Arkansas bred Rob Sutton as the husband, Dan, is unwaveringly convincing. His voice is gorgeous and his emotional journey throughout is gripping, and perhaps the most compelling for his dogged but doomed determination to maintain stability.
Jared Nepute as their son, Gabe, is a find — his vocal performance is impressive and his stage presence, haunting. Caroline Kitrell plays the part of Natalie, their teenage daughter trapped in the impossibility of escaping her home life by focusing on academic perfection. Her character’s rabid eagerness to sustain herself in the face of emotional onslaught is a little familiar, but Kitrell hits all the right notes of distress. Her boyfriend, Henry, a lovable stoner whose good humor and compassion lightens the intensity, is played with flawless ease by Matt Edmonds. Sky Madison plays the various roles of psychiatric professionals with an enthralling panache and some welcome comic relief. The characters here sing in every sense.
The book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are fine-tooled and enchanting. Tom Kitt’s surging music, drifting from pure rock to hints of country and jazz, is vivid. Here, the American soul is laid bare with one riptide of a song after another. Every show wants to portray something important, but few seem to really capture what matters and still manage to entertain. The harrowing truth of mental illness and loss along with our national tendency to suppress any kind of failure or sign of weakness may be the most crucial health issue we face.
If you aren’t particularly compelled to see a musical, then this is more than likely the musical for you. It is, more than anything, a very good play that happens to be spectacularly sung. If you love musicals, though, then you have to see it. Next to Normal is one of the best of its breed, in a class with only a few gritty peers. Audience members who have some experience with mental illness will feel every verse.
Next to Normal is showing through May 12th. To purchase tickets, call (479) 443-5600 or visit their website at theatre2.org. Let me know what you think.