NEXT TO NORMAL
Next to Normal is not your ordinary musical.
The Arts Club’s season-opener tells a powerful psychiatric ghost story about love and loss, grief and mental illness, a woman haunted and her family torn apart. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics dramatize issues around psychiatry and pharmacology with Tom Kitt’s driving, sometimes ferocious rock score.
Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Next to Normal features a brilliant first act somewhat diluted by a meandering, musically repetitious second. But Bill Millerd’s Canadian premiere production never wavers. It attacks the fascinating tale with dynamic performances and a breathless pace.
Catriona Murphy plays Diana Goodman, a wife and mother whose life has gone completely off the rails. Despite the best efforts of loving husband Dan (Warren Kimmel) and surly teenage daughter Natalie (Jennie Neumann), Diana can’t function. The family opens the show by singing “Just Another Day” but it’s another day of craziness. Diana is possibly bipolar and definitely delusional.
Her delusions revolve around son Gabe (Eric Morin). She has never been able to accept his death as an infant 16 years earlier. Diana sees him and talks to him as if he were a grown-up young man, handsome, vital and sympathetic.
Morin has great presence. We can see why Gabe is his mother’s prince, why she wouldn’t want to let him go. But his ghost becomes increasingly demonic and possessive. When he sings “I’m Alive,” it’s with the desperate insistence of a zombie sucking on Diana’s soul so as not to disappear into the world of the dead.
Diana tries to get well by seeing a succession of shrinks, sung alternately with comic gusto and serious compassion by the wonderful Matt Palmer.
She tries psychotherapy and drugs; she flushes the drugs down the toilet and tries to tough it out; she tries suicide and submits to questionable electroshock treatments. “Didn’t I See This Movie?” she sings, remembering One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Meanwhile, as daughter Natalie’s life unravels and threatens to follow her mother’s path, her boyfriend Henry (Colin Sheed) stands by Natalie the way her sympathetic father stands by Diana.
Where this all leads and how it resolves itself you’ll have to see for yourself.
The story is told mostly through song, and the singing is consistently excellent with some fantastic counterpoint arrangements that reminded me of Les Miz (high praise indeed). Excellent too is Ken Cormier’s six-piece band with Cormier himself a standout on piano.
Ted Roberts’ set, little more than scaffolding with a staircase, effectively frames the action and gives the characters two simple levels on which to play out their disturbing journey to a place where “normal” will never be found.