"Next to Normal," the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning musical currently on stage at Geva Theatre, is simply one of the most intense, emotional productions that I have experienced in quite some time. The show — written by Brian Yorkey, with music by Tom Kitt and directed by Scott Schwartz — is not without its (very small) flaws. But it gets so very much brilliantly right, making for a show that is bursting with energy and packed with hard-hitting emotional moments. It is a show that feels very current, very now, and which has an almost universal appeal.
If you don't know the plot of "Next to Normal," try to avoid any finding out about it. Going in blind allows the show to have maximum impact. In the beginning, it seems like it's a musical about modern middle-class American life. Mom is frazzled trying to juggle the million facets of everyday existence. Dad feels completely disconnected from his wife, and has no idea what she's saying half the time. Daughter is a compulsive overachiever with some serious social awkwardness. Son is basically absent. But life plods along more or less normally until Mom has an episode that necessitates a visit to the psychopharmacologist, and then it's better living through chemistry — which maybe isn't really living at all.
Then comes the twist, and the play becomes something much more real, much more revelatory, and much more heartbreaking.
Without going into detail, "Next to Normal" is ultimately a play about mental illness and the devastating impact it can have on the afflicted and their families. While the case in the play is extreme, it's likely that almost any audience member can relate in some way, and the cast and crew do an astonishing job making it all seem very real. By intermission on opening night, there were many patrons with watery eyes walking around the lobby, almost dazed.
"Next to Normal" is a rock musical, which means it will appeal to younger audiences. But that shouldn't scare off fans of traditional musical theater. The live band led by Musical Director Don Kot features guitars, bass, and synth, but the nearly 30 songs are lovely — although perhaps not individually memorable — and fit perfectly into the story at hand. The music in its own way reflects the family and its crisis, with parts being picked up and carried by certain members of the cast before being passed on to others. At times the songs themselves felt like intimate dances.
So much of the show feels effortless — albeit at times emotionally grueling — and that's why it's frustrating when it tries too hard to appear "edgy" or "cool." The opening number is meant to set the tone, introduce the characters and their defining qualities, and stake a claim that this is a different kind of musical. It accomplishes all of that, but it also throws in some lyrics that are intended solely to shock ("We're the perfect loving family/If they say we're not then fuck 'em"). I'm not a prude, but it feels forced compared to 90 percent of the text in the rest of the play, which sounds like things people would actually say to one another.
But truthfully, aside from some minor tone issues, there is very little to criticize about this production. The cast is superb, led by Catherine Porter as Diana, the mother and the central figure in the show. Porter performed the role Diana in the Broadway production of "Next to Normal," and it shows. The control she has over her voice borders on the operatic, as she lets loose, pulls back, jumps octaves — it's astonishing.
Lyndsay Ricketson also turns in a spectacular performance as Natalie, the daughter. Ricketson has a lot to work with in this character — teenaged awkwardness, some very legitimate resentment at her parents, and terror at what is very likely in store for her. She has a firm grasp on all of it, and her singing voice is equally as strong.
As Dan, the father, Bob Gaynor has a lovely singing voice, but it was showing obvious strain on opening night. His voice didn't pierce the way most musical-theater voices do, but he has a warm tone that I could listen to all day. He starts the show fairly stoic, but as the situation builds so does his performance. By the end of the show both he and Porter seemed totally emotionally drained.
Cary Tedder plays Gabe, the son, and Jordan Craig is Henry, the teenaged daughter's love interest. Both are talented young actors with expressive voices. Tedder's character is fascinating, and likely polarizing. Personally I felt dread every time he came on stage, but that's a testament to his performance rather than a condemnation of it. Craig is flawless throughout. Both of them, however, are forced to wear some distractingly bad wigs for some reason.
Kevin Rigdon's set is an entire house, minus the plumbing, with a front that opens up to the audience. It's basically a life-sized Barbie Dream House — which is almost certainly the intention. It also makes smart use of Geva's trap door and hydraulic lift for some insanely fast mini-set changes.