By Sara Boyd, WCCO

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”)

Comments (9)
  1. mary conklin says:

    My family and I were at the performance last night and this review was spot on.We were all fans of the music and rather shocked at what an off night Alice Riply was having.Some of us are vocalists and musicians so we know what a challenge this music is to perform.We would love to see the show again but only if the leads understudy was performing.

  2. paulbark says:

    You shouldn’t give away the plot surprise in the review. This is one of the very few reviews to do that. Shame on you!!

  3. slboyd says:

    How is that a plot surprise? The audience finds that out almost immediately.

  4. paulbark says:

    The big plot reveal is in the middle of the first act, hardly at the beginning. Diana’s mental illness is revealed early, and she seeks therapy and drug treatment. The big plot reveal I’m talking about occurs when the cake is brought out. I’ve read many reviews, heard many reviews of this play and this is only the second review to give notice to that important plot reveal. It catches the audience by surprise, which of course won’t be true for those that read your review. Check out the Next to Normal web site. No mention of this reveal. Your review would have been fine without it. Adding it is not good, it’s not even nothing, it will detract from the experience for those who read your review before attending, which makes it a bad thing to do.

  5. Nate says:

    I agree with paulbark. The reveal is a surprise to most of the audience. This review nonchalantly gave away a very emotional and powerful moment during the show which the majority of other reviews do not do, especially with no spoiler alert given to readers who wish to be surprised.

  6. paulbark says:

    Nate….as I understand it, the play’s creators have specifically asked those doing reviews not to provide the reveal that Sara disclosed. I’ve read anywhere between 30 – 40 reviews of this play, and this is only the second one to spoil that big reveal. Especially disappointing is that Sara doesn’t even seem to understand the play well enough to realize her mistake, even when she’s told about it. I can only guess she knew about it before seeing the play and didn’t have the experience I had when I saw it for the first time. I was caught totally off-guard, and it was one of the highlights of the play.

  7. Nate says:

    Paubark … I believe you are correct in reference to the creators request to withhold the information given in this review. It was definitely a heartbreaking moment when the audience discovered the truth of what was really going on in the Goodman household. I agree, the reviewer must have already heard about the plot and, therefore, assumed everyone else reading the review must have already known, as well. Too bad. Just another reason NOT to read reviews before seeing a show.

  8. paulbark says:

    Nate….I guess the good news is that the reviewer did speak very highly of the play. By the way, I’m chaperoning my daughter’s choir trip to NYC over this weekend, and tonight we saw the musical “Catch Me if You Can,” starring Aaron Tveit, who originated the role of Gabe in N2N on Broadway. He’s outstanding in this new play, as well. Singing, dancing, acting…he does it all.