Both tragic and inspiring, Next to Normal is a groundbreaking musical that goes straight for the heart in its presentation of a family tearing at the seams. It’s not shtick and it’s certainly not your average commercial endeavor. It’s a sometimes overbearing emotional rollercoaster illustrating the messy side of today’s suburbia. I haven’t experienced this brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning gem since Marin Mazzie replaced Alice Ripley at the Booth Theatre in late 2010. Naturally, I was ecstatic Musically Human Productions ambitiously decided to tackle Normal at CAP21. It’s quite a heavy undertaking -- one in which the cast and crew execute with some success but that simply does not pack a large enough emotional punch, given its powerful book (Brian Yorkey) and evocative music (Tom Kitt).
Normal follows a family grappling with a mother and wife named Diana, played with a too detached restraint by Nicole Powell. Diana suffers from bipolar disorder and depression following a traumatic event that occurred eighteen years ago. Everyone’s coping in various healthy and unhealthy ways. Dad (Dan, played by Christopher Ryan) has essentially become numb although he still deeply loves his wife. Teenage daughter Natalie (Elena Ricardo) is starting to rebel while living in the shadows of golden child Gabe (Eric Michael Krop). Added to the mix are Diana’s doctors (Madden and Fine, both played by Craig Foster) and a stoner named Henry (Sam Heldt) who is pursuing Natalie.
The music is moving, often haunting, while the lyrics resourcefully display the characters’ moods and opinions. “You Don’t Know/I Am the One” is a painful lashing out by a distraught mother and a profound commitment from a husband who’s also struggling. Entering CAP21, I knew I’d be moved by the songs and the scenes. But how would my first non-Broadway experience of Next to Normal pan out? How would these artists handle this challenging material?
It’s a mixed bag. Joseph Croghan’s set design is minimalistic, but too much so. Scenes are rarely grounded in a specific locale; a single black chair is passed arbitrarily from stage left to right but more could have been done to establish a doctor’s office from a teenager’s bedroom.
Michael O’Connor’s lighting design is solid and smart: bright and intense during characters’ emotional peaks while shadowy and dark at their lowest points.
The band, conducted by Jeremy Robin Lyons, is full of talent. It’s the perfect rock show during “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” while songs like “I am the One” and “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” are enhanced as the music takes on a role all its own.
Of the cast, Powell, Ricardo and Krop are the strongest singers. Each has a shining moment vocally (Powell during “I Miss the Mountains,” Ricardo during “…Invisible Girl,” Krop during “I’m Alive”) but it’s Ricardo who most effortlessly combines a vocal prowess and a clear portrayal of someone emotionally f*cked up. Whether botching a recital or debating smoking pot, she is believable and honest during her downward-then-upward spiral. Plus she’s got an undeniable chemistry with Heldt that makes the Natalie/Henry scenes pop.
Sam Heldt is remarkable here, perhaps the best actor onstage. In a commanding, funny and poignant turn, Heldt makes Henry someone you root for, someone you want to be a part of this family, someone who hasn’t gone through the Goodmans’ turmoil but who gets it and sticks around anyways.
If we’re talking about well-rounded performances (not just vocal capabilities, which they’ve all got) then Foster and Powell miss the mark. Foster comes and goes without making his dual roles distinct enough. He doesn’t integrate himself smoothly into the action of the play and his doctors never appear that invested. Powell is disconnected to the extreme (example: she barely acknowledges or reacts after being told “it may be fatal”). She’s smooth and graceful in her movements and speech; this does not adequately represent someone bipolar and depressed. There is also little chemistry between Powell and Ryan so the harrowing dilemma between husband and wife is never as harrowing as it should be.
If you’ve never seen Next to Normal, then yes, this is a golden opportunity to check out a beautiful musical. If you have seen it, understand that this is not the Broadway version. There are still kinks that need to be worked out: relationships to be made clearer, moments to be tightened, and even humor to be explored. If these things happen soon, the show could thrive during its run. Right now, it’s on its way but not quite there.
www.musicallyhuman.org for tickets and info.