Even as I sat in my seat, moments before the lights were about to dim, I still had my doubts. A musical about mental illness? Music and dancing and depression? What was I about to get myself into?
But much to my surprise, it totally worked.
“Next to Normal” is a fascinating ride inside the crumbling effects mental illness can have on a family’s core. This family, in particular, is especially telling because they could easily be — and likely are — just about any family in America.
On the outside, the Goodman family certainly appears to be your typical suburban household. Diana, the mother and wife, spends her mornings getting sandwiches ready for afternoon lunches. Her husband, Dan, is your typical father-figure — at times unaware but loving nonetheless. Their daughter, Natalie, is your average 16-year-old with the weight of the world on her shoulders, focusing on getting out from under her parent’s roof and on to a life of freedom and, sure, a bit of rebellion.
And then there’s the son, Gabe — a charming, yet mischievous, 18 year old, who’s the apple of his mother’s eye. Oh, and one more thing about Gabe? He died when he was just 8 months old.
Cut to this typical family inside their home and you’ll see that yes, Diana is making lunches — she’s covered the kitchen table with sandwiches and has now moved onto the floor to make more. Moments later, her son Gabe pops in the room — he’s not actually there and she’s the only one who can see him, but they carry on a conversation like old friends.
Diana suffers from bipolar disorder, depression and perhaps a bit of schizophrenia. And as much as she’s suffering, the illness has undoubtedly taken an equal toll on her family.
Natalie must deal with the embarrassment of having her mother bring in a birthday cake at dinner for her dead brother, unaware of reality, in front of her new boyfriend. Dan works tirelessly to find a cure, trying to do what’s best for his family but knowing full well that he’s losing the love of his life.
The cast in this production does a stellar job of portraying the heartbreak of this story while staying true to the reality of the situation. Nothing’s sugarcoated, nothing’s exaggerated. There are no how-to manuals when it comes to dealing with individual cases of mental illness and this cast pulls brilliantly from that raw emotion of frustration and confusion.
The music is punchy with gut-wrenching ballads, the stage is simple yet successful and from beginning to end, the performances keep you on the edge of your seat.
The one negative shadow — and I hate to say it — was the highly anticipated performance of Alice Ripley, who plays Diana. I wanted to blame it on the mixing or say acoustics were to blame but when it came right down to it, Ripley’s voice was both hard to understand and slightly off key.
Her acting is phenomenal and, I mean, she’s won a Tony Award for this performance but I couldn’t get past the fact that every solo, every harmony was far from what I was hoping. I’m not sure if she was ill or perhaps had a frog in her throat but the end result sounded a bit like she was stifling a yawn through every song.
Ripley was in the original Broadway cast and has received numerous awards, not to mention was part of the reason the show was honored with a Pulitzer Prize, but I couldn’t help feel like I was missing something — was I the only one who felt distracted by trying to understand the lyrics and struggling to find her right pitch? Was this just part of her character, both mentally and vocally falling off the edge?
An off night for the talented Mrs. Ripley or whatever it was aside, I can say, without a doubt, that this show is worth seeing. The music is powerful and whether you can directly relate or not, this show will pull at every emotion.
There’s a line in the show that truly sums everything up perfectly — when it comes down to it, what’s better, the illness or the cure? It’s a question that still, hours after seeing this show, I can’t seem to wrap my head around. When a production has the power to question something so seemingly simple and yet leave you with no good answer, there’s no doubt that its affect is something you simply can’t deny.
“Next to Normal” runs through May 22 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts Theater in St. Paul. For tickets or more information, click here.
WCCO-TV’s Angela Davis Interviews Asa Somers (“Dan”)