I don’t get out to much theatre, generally concentrating my time on film and music, but when my theatre buff friend asked if I wanted to check out the touring production of last year’s Pulitzer-prize winning musical Next to Normal, I couldn’t say no. Though it is, in general, a relatively traditional post-Sondheim musical (most of the story told in song), it takes as its unusual subject a woman struggling with bipolar disorder and the long-ranging effects this has on her family.
Besides the ups and down commensurate with bipolar disorder, Diana is also dealing with the loss of her son several years earlier, a character who becomes almost a dark force pulling her toward madness. On the other side, her husband tries to hold her to sanity, while their teenage daughter Natalie only wishes they could all be “normal,” while she tries to manage her own insecurities. Natalie’s subplot is quite substantial, which I thought was great – it provided a wonderful parallel and balance to Diana’s plot, showing quite clearly both how the effects of Diana’s illness trickle through her family and also how each family member is still responsible for their own lives.
I found the plot point with Diana’s delusions about her son powerful and yet also somewhat distracting, as if bipolar weren’t enough to deal with day to day without a more conventional expression of “crazy” that seemed tailor-made to increase the drama and drive the narrative along rather than as a necessary aspect of the character. I much preferred the less dramatically pronounced but still disruptive early scenes showing Diana going through a manic episode (she gets carried away making sandwiches and begins laying them out all over the floor when she runs out of room on the table), or realizing that her stabilizing medication made her feel numb. Later scenes, as she goes into more intensive therapy and electroshock treatment, struck me as less nuanced.
Alice Ripley won a Tony for originating the lead role of Diana, and it was a treat to have her in the touring cast as they came through Los Angeles. It’s a real testament to her acting abilities that even though we were in the last row of the theatre and she was losing her voice a bit towards the end, I was still captivated by her performance – despite not being able to see her face, her movements and physical interactions with the other actors set her apart as a great stage artist. I was also really impressed with Emma Hunton, who made Natalie such a strong counterpoint to Diana – her difficulties dealing with her mother’s situation while navigating her fears that she may end up just as crazy are very moving and the performances make them very real. The moment that got me most in the play was when Diana and Natalie finally have it out and come to terms with their relationship, agreeing that maybe “next to normal” is an okay way to be. It was emotionally devastating and yet, ultimately, opened up a very hopeful dialogue.
I can’t write about a musical without talking about the music – by and large, the music did what it needed to do, conveying the story and fleshing out the characters in a meaningful way. Several of the songs, particularly in the second half (which was stronger overall, thanks to a more thoughtful and emotional tone, as opposed to the rather comedic and rushed first half), are memorable on their own, though watching it for the first time and not knowing the music, they mostly integrated into one long, undifferentiated sung story for me. There were times that the more complex numbers, involving all the characters singing different strains at the same time, came across a bit muddy and difficult to follow, but that could be simply because of where we were sitting; still, I preferred the sections that focused on a single character, or two in dialogue.
Like I said, I don’t get to much theatre, so I can’t make much in the way of comparisons between this and other plays or musicals out right now. I do think it’s great that a musical with this subject has been made, and made so well – it’s a fairly clear and understandable treatment of an illness that isn’t necessarily well-understood, and makes clear the kinds of struggles people with bipolar disorder and their families go through without losing sight of this particular family and their particular struggles. It’s tough to get both the individual and universal right in the same story, and I think for the most part, Next to Normal does a good job with that.