Next to Normal Who Geva Theatre Center Where 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Rochester When Through Feb. 10 Tickets $51-64 Review by Eesha Patkar
*This review contains spoilers
A mental illness like bipolar disorder is a delicate subject for a theater production. Representing it through a rock musical is even trickier. But Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s music render it successfully in Next to Normal, a piece that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three Tony Awards. After its run on Broadway and several productions at regional theater companies, this musical has come to Rochester’s Geva Theater under the impressive direction of Scott Schwartz.
A handsome and extremely talented cast—supported by the intense and moving musical orchestration of Don Kot—brings this powerful performance to life in many ways. Catherine Porter plays Diana Goodman, a wife and mother living in a suburban house that is the clever reproduction of a quaint dollhouse. She is flawlessly coiffed and dressed, and starts “Just Another Day” with her family. Breakfast at the Goodman’s, however, goes awry as Diana starts throwing chunks of bread and meat around the dining table. This first chink in her seemingly perfect armor foreshadows the dark direction the musical is bound toward. Diana’s enthusiasm and high spiritedness is a symptom of bipolar disorder, and it takes every bit of her family’s love and patience to help her cope with it. Bob Gaynor as Dan is the most enduring husband one could ask for, persistently trying to find a cure and some stability in their lives. Their tired, genius daughter Natalie (Lyndsay Ricketson) is cynical and bitter, and tries to find solace in classical music and her tenacious admirer Henry (Jordan Craig).
Under heavy medication that leaves her ragged and foggy minded, Diana confesses to missing her highs and lows in “I Miss the Mountains.” With her son’s sly whisperings goading her, she flushes her medication down the toilet. What son, you ask? The one she imagined, of course. The baby that the Goodman’s lost 17 years ago, never really died in Diana’s mind. Her mental illness evidently bypassed more than bipolar disorder into an undiagnosed dangerous territory. Gabe played by Cary Tedder is very much “Alive” in her mind and grows into an insidious presence throughout the musical.
The unnerving presence of a hallucination might have threatened to twist and turn a sensitive issue of this caliber into a vulgar affair. Next to Normal stays on track, though. Highlighting Diana’s depression and her family’s pain through compelling rock ballads serves as a continuing presence, even as Act II brings in further agonies for our protagonists. Diana is administered electroconvulsive therapy, commonly known as shock treatment, which has adverse effects that destroy a major chunk of her memory, discovered in a “A Song of Forgetting.” Dan sees this adversity as a blessing in a disguise and promises to make his broken family “Better Than Before.”
For all of Dan’s well-meaning intentions of denial, the past eventually resurfaces and the family must once again find a way to survive. Happiness is a far cry away but they hope for a life that is “Next to Normal.”
Portner and Gaynor are undoubtedly the stars of this production, but Ricketson emerges as a true diamond in the rough. Her Natalie, angry with a desperate instinct for self-preservation, is heartfelt and accessible. Songs like “Catch Me, I’m Falling” and “Wish I Were Here” bring out the best of her singing talents, and provide some of the most emotional moments of the musical. Tedder as Gabe is no less brilliant. His malevolent, cancerous existence provokes antipathy but never fails to remind the audience of the sobering reality of mental illness.
The mobile set design clever accommodates the script, and makes for a pleasant sight at the same time. The musical accompaniment and choreography are terrific additions that subtly and effectively complement this musical.
Next to Normal has several inspired gems in its basket, and this tactful and beautiful production makes it an event that shouldn’t be missed.