Review: 'Next to Normal' steeped in intensity
By AUDREY WELLS
"Next to Normal," The Celebration Company's current production at the Station Theatre, pries apart our expectations of a musical, lining it with intelligent drama and opening the way for an unusual kind of resonance. The strong performances from all involved offer a satisfying theatrical experience.
Today's audiences know that modern musicals can be about dark, serious subjects, like "Les Miserables" or "Rent." But when the setting is suburban America and the subject family life, we might expect lighter elements.
"Next to Normal" opens with a comic mother's lament over her teenage son, who returned home too late. Her daughter, also a teenager, who is striving for acceptance to Yale and overwrought about homework, casually unfurls foul language.
In the morning, her husband hurriedly prepares for work. We recognize these characters. They seem normal. True to its title, however, we soon discover that any normality in the neighborhood must reside next door.
The humorous sarcasm promptly gives way to the deep difficulties weighing on this family that result in large part from the mother's mental illness, but also from repressed grief.
"Next to Normal" — book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey — received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The serious subject matter, complex characters, complicated relationships and honest dialogue all make for excellent drama. This story is told, nonetheless, primarily through music and song, and the final effect feels like opera.
The music, by Tom Kitt, fits into the broad genre of rock, pulling in folk and some jazz, too. The music director, Alex Zelck Smith, and the six-piece band do a wonderful job with the versatile score. Even though at times it seemed to me the actors had to struggle to rise above the volume of the band, the music and vocals complement each other beautifully.
Jodi Prosser gives her character, the afflicted mother, Diana Goodman, a remarkable amount of love, embodying her with artistry and singing every lyric with nuance.
The other five cast members also take on their roles with devotion and sing well. Allison Morse as the daughter, Natalie, brought her character's point of view to the forefront with great understanding. Andy Hudson as the husband, Dan Goodman, carefully reveals his character's pain. Chris Johnson, the son Gabe, wavers interestingly between angelic and devilish. Thank goodness for the character of Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, played warmly by Dylan Connelley, for anchoring this sad family with kindness. Steve Conaton in two roles as doctors stays steady and shows through his characters how neutrality can be hurtful.
When Diana Goodman tells him "I don't feel anything," he records "Patient stable."
Rick Orr's direction lets the actors show their best work.
There is not much overt choreography, but movements such as dropped silverware or slammed cabinets punctuate music.
A simple two-level set design by Rachel Witt-Callahan suggests a house but functions with flexibility for many other settings.
"Next to Normal" ends with a song titled "Light," but the show is overall heavy. It is pitched at a high level of intensity and stays there for quite a while, resonating.
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.