In 2010, "Next to Normal" became the eighth musical in history to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A Pulitzer for a rock musical, no less, a genre typically reserved for "American Idol" rejects and revues featuring the greatest hits of now-elderly musicians. But "Next to Normal," which Pittsford Musicals opened last Friday, has achieved something far more important than ticket sales: it's contributed to increased awareness and education about mental illness.
Because of the subject matter, "Next to Normal" is not an easy show to watch. For anyone who has been affected by mental illness, there will be reminders of that pain throughout the story -- a verklempt ride underscored by guitar riffs, sarcastic quips and occasional light humor. Yet somehow a rock musical about mental illness is just the spoonful of sugar needed for audiences to digest a socially stigmatic issue that's often hidden away and associated with shame.
"Next to Normal" -- featuring music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey -- follows a suburban family dealing with the effects of mental illness as the mother, Diana, suffers from a crippling bipolar disorder. Themes of loss, drug abuse, psychiatric ethics and treatments, and love are all touched upon in ways that resonate powerfully with audiences (when "Next to Normal" played at Geva Theatre Center in early 2013, it sold out so many shows that the run was extended). There isn't much more that can be said about the plot without the risk of spoilers, so simply watch closely for pivotal moments and clues. "Next to Normal" takes only one moment to keep the action hurtling forward -- on Friday, the biggest plot twist created a ripple of gasps and murmurs through the audience.
With a six-member cast, "Next to Normal" is meant to be an ensemble show. Each character has their time to shine, due in part to an equally distributed, gripping score and narrative lyrics. The stunningly talented Emily Putnam, who local audiences may remember from Kate Royal's recent play "Mammoth" at MuCCC, portrays Diana. Putnam is a young woman playing a character twice her age, but she's absolutely riveting as a mother, wife, and mentally ill patient. Her vocal (and character) ranges make her a dream in this role, though her voice is stronger on the lyrical ballads than the rock riffs.
Putnam is matched perfectly by Sydney Howard, who plays Natalie, the daughter. Howard is a force onstage, capturing both the hope and helplessness her character grapples with, and her clear voice soars during each number. The ladies steal a large part of the show, though they are admirably supported by Scott Shutts (Dan, Diana's husband), Justin Borak (Henry, Natalie's love interest), Matthew Edward (Gabe, the son), and J. Daniel Lauritzson (Doctor Madden and Doctor Fine).
The character development in this production is remarkable, which reflects well on artistic director Lindsay Warren Baker. (It should be no surprise coming from Baker -- a show she penned, "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical," was an audience favorite at the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival and premiered in La Mirada, California, this past April.) Emotions are raw and real for the entire two-hour run.
The costume design by Tanya Komorowski is a subtle delight. Komorowski has the challenge of making contemporary clothing interesting, and she succeeds by creating an underlying layer of metaphor through colors. Each costume seems to take on an identity, creating a subplot for the already complex storyline. Lighting designer Chris McCormack accentuates the plot with color as well, dowsing the screen behind the set in bright reds and soft violets. The set, a shell of a suburban house that suggests upper middle class status, creates a visual for the emotional separation of the characters. Dave Fisher's beautiful minimalist design also allows for Baker to implement well-calculated staging and gives the audience something to focus on when choreography is understated during musical numbers. It also cloaks -- but doesn't hide -- the phenomenal six-person band onstage, conducted by music director Julie Covach.
There were a few songs, mostly the rock numbers, where it was difficult to hear the vocalists clearly over the guitars and drums -- but overall, the message of "Next to Normal" leaves a larger impression than technical difficulties ever could.
Pittsford Musicals could have chosen any other show: something happier, something with a bigger cast, something with universal name recognition that would sell tickets. The fact that they chose "Next to Normal" is a big deal, and one that deserves attention. If community theatre exists to bring art to the masses, why should it not also bring thought-provoking, vital messages? Sounds a lot like the goal of good art.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The caption to this story's photo has been corrected. Scott Shutts is the actor at the bottom right of the photo.