There were dueling musicals playing Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. We found ourselves in the Eisenhower Theater watching the rock musical Next to Normal, the story of a woman caught in bipolar disorder. Right next-door in the Opera House was the musical Wicked, which we had caught in Chicago way back in 2005, is still going strong and based on people hanging outside the theater, is still attracting its share of devoted groupies.
It would be hard to put two stranger musicals side by side. Wicked is a glitzy but largely empty-headed musical fantasy on the world of Oz with a mixture of pretty good to great music, a so-so story, lots of costumes and numerous scene changes. On the other hand, Next to Normal is a modest musical with just one set (on three levels), a small cast, zero special effects and is anchored in the present day. Wicked is a fun musical; Next to Normal is a downer of a musical and, if you have dealt with mental illness in your family, it will also feel uncomfortably familiar. Yet surprisingly, Next to Normal emerged from off Broadway, made a previous appearance here in Washington at Arena Stage, went on Broadway, won a number of Tony Awards and is now on tour. Its success may be due in part to the crushing number of people and families struggling with mental illness.
No question about it, Diana Goodman is a mess of a woman. Life for her is largely dysfunctional. Some part of her seems like a normal housewife until she does strange or harmful things like making sandwiches on the floor or deciding to slice her wrists. Such as it is, her life involves taking pills and talking to psychiatrists. “Success” is achieved when she is so medicated she feels almost nothing. Yet she realizes that her medicated world is a false world, and sings as much in one of the songs, I Miss the Mountains. Her mental illness is so consuming that it squeezes all other life out of her small family’s existence.
Her dutiful husband Dan (Asa Somers) spends his life closely monitoring his psychotic wife, and hopes for days or weeks of something resembling normal (It’s Gonna Be Good). Only there is no normal in this house. Diana is like a bull in a china shop, and has no idea of the emotional devastation she is inflicting on her husband or her estranged daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton). Natalie, an overachieving high school student, is devastated by her mother’s emotional absence from her life. Her father cannot do much to fill the gap. He is too busy playing the role of dutiful caregiver to Diana. It’s a role that leaves him emotionally devastated too, as well as exhausted and suffering from something akin to post traumatic stress disorder. He is always on edge, always trying to keep his family from imploding, and always wondering when his wife’s next crazy episode will arrive. It is hard not to sympathize with Dan, a truly nice guy who must live life keeping a stiff upper lip.
As the musical unfolds it is easy to see that Diana’s mental illness is catching. Natalie is pursued by Henry, who enjoys listening to her music and grows to love her, but not in a healthy way. Rather, Henry senses she is emotionally vulnerable, and like her father wants to play the role of catching her when she falls. Meanwhile, Natalie starts channeling her mother. An episode that puts her mother in the hospital pushes her over the edge, and she begins taking some of her mother’s medicines to try to escape her less than ideal reality. Overseeing everything is Gabe, the cause of Diana’s psychosis. Gabe was her son. The real Gabe died at eight months of an unseen intestinal blockage, but he lives on as a creature from the Id in Diana’s mind. It is the powerful image of Gabe, as a rebellious teenager (played by Curt Hansen), that symbolizes Diana’s desire to live life on her own terms. She wants to break free from the world of medications and psychiatrists, as long as she can feel again. Gabe is really something of the central character of the musical, usually onstage and providing commentary and temptation. The baby Gabe may have died long ago, but his projection lives on and pulls the whole family into his massive gravity well of pain and hurt.
Shrinks also play an important counterweight in the musical, as they fruitlessly try to move Diana into a place of healing. Even the best shrink in town, Dr. Madden (Jeremy Kushnier) finds he has his hands full with her, and eventually recommends electroconvulsive therapy, which has the effects of making her forget most of her past.
In our performance, Alice Ripley played Diana, who originated the part and won a Tony for her role. Presumably Ripley could sing better on stage than she does, because her raspy alto voice mirrors the pain within her character. Her voice was the only off note (but presumably a deliberate one) to a fast flowing, depressing yet riveting musical. While allegedly a rock musical, it doesn’t particularly sound like one. The music has songs that are definitely come out of rock, but others that sound more like pop or easy listening than rock. As with Rent (and this was directed by the same man who directed Rent, Michael Greif), the orchestra, such as it is can be found on the stage, almost characters themselves.
Looking around at the audience I got the sense that many were dealing with mental illness in their own lives. We know today that mental illness is a huge problem, so it would not surprise me if many of the mentally ill and/or their families found some identity and therapy in the musical.
It would be nice if the musical had a happy ending, and it does sort of resolve things, just not in a neat and tidy package. At least for a brief time the characters find a breathing space of sorts, and as the show’s title suggests, a place next to normal where something close to normality can be sampled.
This is obviously an adult themed show and not appropriate for small children. It is one of the few musicals to explore inner rather than outer worlds and in my mind a lot more meaningful than the fun but vapid production of Wicked next door.
(P.S. Also watch Garden State, a terrific movie, much more lighthearted but with a similar theme.)