San Diego, CA—-In light of the recent shootings in Tucson, most Americans are focused on what’s being done to help the mentally ill. For some, it’s business as usual. For some, it’s struggling at home making things ‘almost’ or next to right. For others help is available but with coaxing and pills.
The question begs, “Can a rock musical about mental illness bring another awareness, see another dimension?”
When “Next To Normal”, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, musical staging by Sergio Trujillo and music by Tom Kitt debuted off-Broadway in 2008 it won the Outer Critics’ Circle Award for outstanding score, and several nominations Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Actress (San Diego’s Alice Ripley) and Outstanding Score.
“Next To Normal” opened on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for eleven 2009 Tony Awards and won three, Best Score, Best Orchestration and Best Actress in a Musical for Ms. Ripley. Just for the frosting on the cake it also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (surrounded by some controversy). Someone must be paying attention.
One thing you don’t want to do though is to expect a warm fuzzy musical, one that you will go home whistling and doing side steps to on the way out of the theatre. Be prepared to take a deep breath and keep breathing. Family illness is at the core of this heartwarming, touching yet gut wrenching and brilliant musical, nearing operatic proportions.
No one dies of an incurable illness in “Next To Normal”. The sickness that’s paralyzing this suburban family is a silent killer because it destroys it little by little red, green and white, chewable and swallow whole pill at a time. (“Whose Crazy/My Psycho pharmacologist”)
The story centers on Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley). The center of the Goodman family, the glue that holds it together for better or worse is her husband Dan (Asa Somers).
For eighteen years the Goodman family, for reasons you will learn when you see the play yourself, has been struggling to cope with Diana’s Bipolar disease, anxiety and the trickle down effects of a series of mental disabilities, much to the detriment of their daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton) and son Gabe, (Curt Hansen) ‘super boy and invisible girl’, and husband Dan.
Whatever you might have heard about the musical, you have to see and hear with your own eyes Ripley’s performance, reprising her Broadway role. Her voice is haunting and her portrayal of Diana is heartbreaking, somewhat like an open wound that won’t heal. She is a lost soul deep in her schizophrenia with moments of lucidness that conjure both pathos and humor much to the credit of Yorkey’s lyrics.
Her singing “I Miss The Mountains, I miss the pain” where she recognizes that ‘everything is perfect, nothing is real”…and she misses her life, just about sums up her tortured mind and gives us insight to her agony. On the outside, she goes through the motions but just beneath the surface there lays a time bomb ready to detonate.
Asa Somers’ Dan, who has the patience of a saint, holds on desperately to what he thought he had and what he wants (“It’s Gonna Be Good” and “Better Than Before”). His performance is equally strong and painful as the struggles, barely to keep it all together unwearyingly one breakdown at a time. His, he relates after cleaning up from Diana’s attempt into the abyss, is just a slower suicide.
Emma Hunton’s Natalie gives a near perfect portrayal of the rebellious teenager who finally comes back to the fold, from the devil you don’t know to the devil you do know. (“Maybe” Next to Normal) Her searing voice is beautiful. Matching her in clarity and passion, as he moves in and out of their lives, touching them all is Curt Hansen’s Gabe, brother and son who holds the key to his families’ secrets.
Former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, Michael Greif directs with an excellent eye for just the right balance between defiant daughter Natalie, her new found stoner boyfriend, Henry (Preston Sadlier), their son Gabe, her many doctors (Jeremy Kushnier) from whom she sees help, and husband Dan who wants it all. (“A Light in the Dark”)
The “Next to Normal” band with conductor/ Piano Bryan Perri in clear sight atop Mark Wendland’s three-tiered industrial looking set with sliding panels rocks the Balboa Theatre. Kevin Adams lighting design is a bit harsh especially when the lights shine back into the audience at near blinding force. Thankfully, it only last for seconds.
Staging a musical about mental illness might not be for everyone, but I would recommend it highly. Pulling the covers over our heads and pretending it will go away, is not an option.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Jan. 23rd
Organization: Broadway/San Diego
Production Type: Rock Musical
Where: 868 Fourth Ave., San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: start at $20.00
Venue: Balboa Theatre