"Next to Normal," book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and music by Tom Kitt, is the story of Diana, a woman who exhibits symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and is on a variety of psychotropic medications. The life of her family—husband Dan, and teenage daughter Natalie—are understandably and negatively affected, resulting in dysfunction and ill feelings on behalf of the daughter, who feels she’s an invisible girl that nobody cares enough to notice. Unknown to both Dan and Natalie, Diana experiences visits from a teenage son as well. The action leads us through the trials of psychoanalysis, electro-shock therapy (resulting in massive memory loss), and final acceptance of a marriage that just cannot be saved. The presence of the lost son, Gabe, is strongly felt throughout the show.
Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy were inspired in their casting of the show. Kimi Short is an earnest Diana, barely coping with her delusions, grasping at solutions, who finally gathers the courage to leave a hopeless situation. Jeffrey M. Wright is her long-suffering husband, who feels his love and continued devotion to Diana should have been her salvation, and is anguished when it proves otherwise. Mary Beth Black is a strong Natalie—both in acting and voice—finally seeing to her own happiness. Ryan Foizey is beguiling as the lost son, Gabe. A chameleonic Joseph McAnulty is Henry, Natalie’s anchor out of the morass. And Zachary Allen Farmer effectively portrays two different therapists.
The story is told in dozens of songs, with very little straight dialogue. Musical Director Justin Smolik led a band of five in musical support. The multi-level set, laden with mismatched lamps, doors, and pill bottles (Scott L. Schoonover), is very suited to the blocking. I found the use of the floor tiles—tight upstage and dissolution downstage, echoing the action—to be the most effective aspect. Lighting (Sean Savoie) supports the production well. Costumes (Amy Kelly) are appropriately unobtrusive.
Was New Line’s "Next to Normal" a perfect production? Almost. An inability to discern some song lyrics due to characters singing different lyrics simultaneously, or a combination of mis-tuned microphones and a loud on-stage band, kept me wondering what was being sung at times. Unfortunate. But the amazing acting and singing by all members of the cast helped mitigate those sound problems. It was an affecting and thought-provoking night of theatre.
Run time is 2 hours 25 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. "Next to Normal" continues at Webster University’s South Campus Theatre through March 23, 2013. For more information call 314-773-6526, or visit their website at www.newlinetheatre.com.