The set-up: A musical about mental illness? Are you kidding, I hear you ask. But wait, it's been done before, quite a few times actually, most famously in the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin Lady in the Dark (1941), a splashy carnival that put supporting actor Danny Kaye on the road to stardom. That show starred legendary diva Gertrude Lawrence as a proto-feminist fashion editor who couldn't decide which lover to take. She undergoes psychoanalysis, a novel idea at the time for a Broadway show, to help resolve her twin dilemma of running a business and being a woman. Times have certainly changed.
There's an entire musical sub-genre devoted to people not quite "normal." Other shows to spotlight characters not in the mainstream include Dear World, Assassins, Light in the Piazza, Jekyll and Hyde, Grey Gardens, Sweeney Todd, and Spring Awakening. More join the rep every season. But none possesses the emotional wallop of the award-winning Next to Normal, by Bryan Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music). In a stunning yet intimate co-production from MJR Theatricals and Music Box Musicals, with insightful direction from Luke Wrobel and a cast of six who are heaven sent, this little show reveals all its glories up close and personal.
The show invigorates as it wrenches us senseless. It's a singular sensation, a rare occurrence in theater, whether drama or musical. It's no surprise this musical won the Tony for Best Original Score (2009) - losing Best Musical nod to Billy Elliot - and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2010).
The execution: The power resides in the very ordinary characters. They're everyday folks, your neighbors, perhaps even one of your own family. Middle class and fairly average, Dan and Diana (Eric Domuret and Kristina Sullivan) with their two children Natalie and Gabe (Dani Pike and Corey Hartzog) would seem to have what most of us would like to have, except for one problem: Mom is crazy. Lady in the Dark would be an appropriate subtitle.
Ever since a traumatic incident 17 years ago, Diana has been in and out of therapy, with some years better than others. The effect on her family has been devastating. Everyone has been affected. Dad takes Diana's illness in stride, brushing it aside in hopes it'll go away. He gets his sex fix in the morning before breakfast, what's the worry? Son Gabe is surly and responds to Mom with empathy, but keeps his distance from the rest of the family. Daughter Natalie has a harder time. Neglected for years, she's on her own, coping as best she can, scared to death she'll inherit her mom's illness. Smart yet full of sharp angels, she keeps everyone at a distance.
When she meets fellow student Henry (Marco Camacho), an amiable stoner geek, she holds him off, wary of commitment, no matter how heartfelt and genuine he is. Mom, of course, has the hardest time of all. Pulled into pieces she can't understand, she breaks apart one ordinary morning while getting the kids off to school. Making sandwiches, she dumps the bread on the floor and assembles them there, unaware that her family watches in fright and horror.
In "My Psychopharmacologist and I," we meet her latest doctor, Dr. Fine (Brad Scarborough). Earnest and sincere, he's clueless what to do to really help her other than prescribe more drugs. This comic number, taking place over months of treatment, breaks the tension momentarily, as the side effects of the combo drugging is presented in a happy-wappy deconstruction of Rodgers and Hammerstein. By the end of the song, Diana sings, "I don't feel anything." Dr. Fine only knows, "Patient stable."
While the medical establishment gets clobbered for its ineptitude, there's not much they can do to help. When Diana goes med-free, throwing her pills down the toilet, daughter Natalie quips they have the happiest septic system in town. Her self-medication doesn't work either, for suddenly, in a coup de theatre that is scaldingly explosive in theatricality, the cause - or one of them - of her immense hurt is revealed. The audience is suddenly shell-shocked. Electroshock therapy is next for Diana. Will it work, or completely wipe out her memories, leaving her more blank and unhappy than ever? So ends Act I.
This rich and powerful musical ratchets up the tension, the touchy humor, the unbearable lightness of being. These are big themes. Does suffering from inconsolable grief really mean you're crazy? Is a marriage on autopilot any sort of marriage? Must you be happy to be happy that you're alive, whatever the pain? With a rock score tinged with gospel, bluegrass, and the radiant ballads "I Miss the Mountains" and "I Dreamed a Dance," the musical forges onward, spinning off sparks that light up the theater. This musical is electric.
The cast is impeccable. We already know Sullivan as a consummate singing actress from previous productions My Fair Lady, Jane Eyre, Sunday in the Park with George, and Little Shop of Horrors, but her Diana is a capstone performance. It ranges from the deepest lows of anguish and incomprehension to wistful longing and the sweet highs of hope. Her crystalline soprano is ripe for shattering, and her voice here is raw and tremendously emotional, filling in the subtlest details in Yorkey and Kitt's words and music.
Domuret, so memorable just weeks ago as Jean Valjean in Houston Family Arts Center's stirring Les Miserables, brings his formidable dramatic chops to delineate Diana's clueless, wounded husband. "I've Been" is his plea for some cure to finally work. He's the one who stayed by Diana all these years, it's not fair if the latest treatment leaves him alone.
Young Dani Pike, a senior at Kingwood High School, is a real Broadway baby. She finds just enough of the soft side of Natalie's spiky character to let us in and believe in her. When Natalie turns to the dark side, spurning sweet Henry (Camacho, with plangent voice and puppy dog temperament), we hope it's only a temporary setback. Pike has an exquisite reconciliation scene with Sullivan, "Maybe," where the show's theme is given a face. "I don't need a life that's normal," Natalie sings, "That's way too far away, But something next to normal would be okay." Their duet breaks your heart.
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Hartzog, as if ready to pounce, overlays Gabe with feral athleticism. He spits out his rock anthem,"I'm Alive" with pent-up venom. Lurking in the shadows, or appearing in a blood-red swatch of light, he's a creepy outsider, powerfully menacing from the sidelines. Scarborough, with his delicious tenor's crooner voice, makes the most of his double supporting roles as Diana's ineffectual doctors. With all their science, we want to believe them, but they are as rudderless as their patient.
The sound balance is a little off, leaving the amplified actors fighting against the heavy percussive rock score, which is certainly an easy enough fix. The production is simple: framed pieces of the exterior of the house hang upstage, a large panel crackling like electric current is stage left, and an extreme close-up of wild, crazy eyes hangs stage right. Not much else is necessary, seeing that it's all there in the libretto and music. There are no dancing girls in this show, no chorus, no turntable sets, no extra goodies at all - just a supremely nourishing premise, exquisitely acted, that will leave you breathless and gasping at the dramatic rightness of it all.
The verdict: Next to Normal is anything but normal in the Broadway pantheon. An exceptionally powerful show, it is both intimate and grand, working its magic with a sure deft touch. MJR Theatricals and Music Box Musicals rises to the extraordinary with this one.
Performances of Next to Normal continue through August 30 at The Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt Street. Purchase tickets online at www.musicboxmusicals.com or call 713-522-7722. $25-$45.