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Posted Sep 22, 2012, 6:29 pm
Crazy is funny, but mental illness, not so much. I know – I spent two summers in a state mental hospital. Not as a patient – sheesh, people! – it was a paid internship while in college. I know the seriousness of mental illness, and also have a trove of authentic stories, some hilarious.
So I attended opening night of Arizona Theatre Company’s season-opening "Next to Normal" with both an open mind and some sensitivity born of experience. After all, a “musical comedy” about a wife and mom who hallucinates and suffers chronic depression doesn’t sound entirely promising. Throw in a daughter indulging in drug abuse and following her mom down the rabbit hole and the odds against a laugh fest are even higher.
Nonetheless, “Next to Normal” is funny, perhaps surprisingly so. Directed by David Ira Goldstein, ATC’s artistic director, the show is fast-paced and entertaining. The original production debuted off-Broadway in 2008, but moved up quickly, pulling 11 Tony nominations in 2009, as well as taking the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
What it’s about still doesn’t sound very funny
The plot follows a seemingly normal family of four – mom Diane and hubby Dan, their overachieving daughter Natalie and her older brother Gabe. Diane and Dan were college sweethearts who married when she became pregnant. Now she struggles with depression and (spoiler alert) it turns out that Gabe died as an infant; the young man is a hallucination that only she can see. Because of her obsession with the child she lost, Diane is unable to give Natalie much love and uses sex to overcompensate with Dan.
Natalie finds an erstwhile boyfriend in Henry, a stoner from her high school.
Repeated therapy attempts and massive medication don’t work and Diane’s illness reaches an acute stage when Gabe entices her to join him on the other side, leading to a suicide attempt. Her new doctor, whom she hallucinates as a rock star, recommends electroshock therapy as a last resort at the end of Act One.
Act Two tracks Diane’s massive memory loss from the therapy making her a stranger in her own home. Natalie starts helping herself to mom’s meds and spirals out of control, much to Henry’s consternation. Dan, having valiantly but naively vowed to stick by Diane since they discovered she was pregnant, still refuses to give up on her.
As her memory slowly (too slowly, but more on that later) Diane realizes that she has to let go – of her delusions of Gabe, of Dan and Natalie, and the life that she constructed as a distraction for the loss of her infant. She frees Dan of his vows, kisses Natalie goodbye and heads off stage, if not to find happiness, to at least give Dan and Natalie life without crazy.
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Why it’s funny
“Next to Normal” starts off gently, simply poking fun at Diane’s efforts to be the perfect wife and mom, mirrored by Natalie’s overachievement to be the perfect daughter. As the depths of Diane’s problem become clearer, the target for the humor shifts to our slim understanding of how to fix people who are broken. There’s a funny riff on the pharmaceutical industry, turning Diane into an experiment in the quest for the optimal state of overmedication, a perfect balance between competing side effects.
The manic pace keeps us from too much analysis on the underlying cause for string of short comedic moments. Serious consideration of mental illness is not the point, which is okay because the focus here is on how funny crazy looks. And it is funny, with lots of knowing chuckles at specific behaviors we all recognize.
And there’s music, too
The show’s 39 songs (including reprises) also serve to move the plot forward in a humorous fashion that dialogue would make cumbersome. There tunes are mostly contemporary Broadway with more than a nod towards classic rock, backed by a six-piece band, mostly keyboards but with some understated fuzz guitar, too.
The music by Tom Kitt has a tendency to end songs in the upper range, especially for the male singers, which does not showcase their best tone. The book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are funny and/or functional from the set-up song, “Just Another Day” to “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist And I” through to “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling” and the finale, “Light.” “I Miss The Mountains” could transcend the show as an adult contemporary hit in its own right. Kitt and show won Tony Awards for Best Musical Score and Best Orchestration in 2009.
What doesn’t work so well
The show structurally lags in Act Two since the healing process is inherently not as interesting or funny as crazy is.
Despite the strong mirroring of the character arcs between Diane and Natalie, and also Dan and Henry, in the end the characters all spiral in different directions. Diane’s decision to leave is heroic, but not necessarily satisfying, since we end with no idea if anyone will find happiness. The character of Gabe, supposedly an innocent, takes on a slightly demonic quality by trying to destroy Diane, even given the conundrum that he is only a creation of her own mind.
The vocal sound on opening night had a tinny, artificial quality that was distracting. The vocals especially during forte ensemble singing, often over-modulated into shrill transients. The band, who played wonderfully, was perhaps too understated and could have been a little louder. Combined with slightly less amplified vocals, this would have achieved a better balance.
Nothing wrong with the performances
The vocals themselves were very clear, the lyrics easily understood. As expected the entire cast are strong singers, and the ensemble singing, as well as the many duets, often sung from opposite ends of the stage, was spot on.
Kendra Kassebaum as Diane, gave a strong, energetic performance in the main role. Andrea Ross effectively carried off the more difficult but less showcasey role of Natalie. Joe Cassidy as Dan, Jonathan Shew as Gabe, A. J. Holmes as Henry and Mark Farrell as Doctors Madden and Fine (get it?) did well in their supporting roles, though the men were often disadvantaged by having to end songs in the upper tenor.
John Ezell’s multi-level stage deserves mention. It created a coziness at the stage level, with an airy upstairs platform that facilitated instantaneous transitions in the action without clunky exits or entrances, keeping the pacing lightning fast. The repeated pattern of a house outline gave both evoked suburbia, and a sense of something slightly out of kilter. The lighting and rear stage projections by David Lee Cuthbert were simply brilliant.
Arizona Theatre Company is sensitive to the issue of mental health in staging “Next to Normal.” They have partnered with multiple organizations to offer post-show representatives at all shows to answer non-production related questions regarding mental illness and resources available in our community, as well as resource tables and post-show discussions for selected performances.
“Next to Normal” is a edgy musical comedy that is a visual treat in ACT’s expertly done production and well worth experiencing. You’d be crazy to miss it.