By Barry Reszel
Glencoe’s Writers Theatre’s current production of 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical Next to Normal demands its patrons come with expectations properly set.
This is a haunting, disturbing, roller-coaster of a show that takes its audiences through the full range of human emotion through omniscient presence examining gut-wrenching reality set to a stunning, Tony award-winning score.
It’s the story of a suburban family coping with life 16 years after the death of their toddler son. Diana, the mother wonderfully and understatedly portrayed by Keeley Vasquez, is undergoing psychiatric treatment for bipolar disorder and hallucinations. Husband Dan (David Schlumpf) suffers silently while trying to hold the family together for Diana and teen daughter Natalie (Kyrie Courter). This terrific ensemble is completed with Diana’s hallucinations of deceased son Gabe (Liam Oh), Natalie’s boyfriend Henry (Alex Levy) and Diana’s therapists, Drs. Fine and Madden (Gabriel Ruiz).
The 2009-2011 Broadway production won critical acclaim, numerous award nominations and a handful of statues, including Best Original Score and Best Orchestration Tonys. Indeed, Brian Yorkey’s marvelous book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s soaring music form a near rock opera.
Next to Normal is a heartbreaking trek through one family’s experiences with mental illness, specifically bipolar I with psychotic features (using current terms). It’s at the same time dramatic, frightening and incredibly sad. Thankfully, Kitt’s gorgeous rock score and Yorkey’s eloquent lyrics permit the audience to appreciate the family’s survival in the midst of mental chaos and victimization of an ill mother and her caretaking family.
A terrific synopsis and history of this show may be found here. But more importantly, information on the poignant peaks and valleys of bipolar disorder should be read here. This insidious malady formerly known as Manic Depression is suffered by up to 5 percent of the population, according to some reports.
Kudos to the Writers team abound, beginning with its program notes that encourage learning about mental illness and include information about and the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. Brilliant musicianship of Music Director and Conductor Andr Velis Simon and her orchestra of eight union musicians hit every right note. Musical high points include Vasquez’s ode to the manic episodes, “I Miss the Mountains,” and Oh’s driving, “I’m Alive.” But to be fair, there’s not a dud in the bunch.
Director David Cromer sets his Normal to a New Century Modern multi-leveled look that’s really more functional than exciting. That’s not a put down to Scenic Designer Regina Garcia. In fact, the set, costumes and lighting are complements to the the acting…all feelin a bit muted or subdued. That’s different from Normal productions past, which strove to show the highest highs and lowest lows of bipolar disorder. This vision is more disquieting. More subtle. More stark. And if the young couple sobbing down the row on opening night is any indication, it’s magnificently unforgettable to some members of the audience.
More than anything, Next to Normal is a musical theatre reminder not to discount the anguish of those with whom the front line sufferers share their lives. It’s a show that delves into an entire family unit’s heroic quest for resilience and love in the wake of tragedy and illness. And while hope may not be a strategy, believing that “there will be light” is a whole lot better than the alternative.
Writers Theatre presents “Next to Normal” through June 30 at