Next to Normal
Through Sunday, Nov. 11
It’s hard to portray mental illness as anything but bleak and hopeless for both the sufferers and those around them, but NRACT’s production of Next to Normal almost succeeds. The musical begins with a mother, Diana Goodman (Aubrey Comperatore), sitting up at 3:30 a.m. and singing to her son about all the ways he could possibly die. By day, on the surface, she runs a normal family, but she spends sleepless nights in worry and anxiety, suffering from a bipolar disorder that severely hinders her family’s quality of living. She also has a loving (if not boring) husband and an academically minded daughter, Natalie (Averi Zimmerman), whose psyche is overwhelmed by her mother, her music, and the boy (Bryan Bunch) who won’t leave her alone.
In the first act, we learn through song how Diana’s neuroses are treated as she embraces and abandons her medications, grappling with a secret that’s revealed about a quarter of the way through the play. She sings a comedic number about the intimate, borderline romantic quality of her relationship with her doctor, played by a genuine Greg Toft, who, despite wanting the best for Diana, confirms the notion that numbness is better than feeling the terror of her illness. Her husband, Dan (Beau Clark), is obsessed with the perfection and normalcy of his family, but he is loving and supportive of Diana nonetheless. We watch the weight of the world press down on his shoulders as well.
The set design is simple yet creative, and director Timothy E. Locklear uses the full stage to his advantage, with the performers coming out of all corners to add to each song. The set never really changes, but through the dialogue and lyrics of Brian Yorkey, there is never any confusion as to where we are. What this musical does best is to portray the ways mental illness affects everyone—the “normal” and the “next to normal.”
But despite the well-fleshed characters and what appeared to be a very personal story, I found it to be rather tedious at times. There are six individuals onstage and thirty-eight songs performed, which is where I believe the show overextends its reach. Some songs feel irrelevant or give unnecessary weight to arcs of lesser importance. The romance between Natalie and Henry seems a bit forced and unimportant to the overarching story, which could have lost thirty minutes while maintaining its message and its musical credibility.