Next to Normal is a rock-styled musical about a dysfunctional family, with a heartrendingly dark undertone to some genuinely funny material.
With tone-setting help from music composed by Tom Kitt, writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey conceived Next to Normal as a problem play in the non-Shakespearean sense. The 2008 work's focus is psychiatry, so if you have strong feelings about how we treat people with mental illness, you will either get a lot out of it or depart ready to tweet dirty words at the writers. It won multiple Tonys and a gosh-darned Pulitzer, though — meaning that, technically, the play outranks me.
In Stage 62's new production, directed by Stephen Santa, Cynthia Dougherty takes the lead as Diana, the matriarch of an overfunded white suburban family, who can never quite find the right psychiatric care to function as well as she'd like. Every number Dougherty gets is a highlight, including one with her son Gabe, played by Nick Black, that had me bawling in my seat.
- Photo courtesy of Friedman Wagner-Dobler
- From left: Chad Elder, Cynthia Dougherty and Nick Black in Stage 62's Next to Normal
In an interesting twist — trying not to reveal too much here, as the show plays with hallucinations and perception — Diana's mental illness is manifested as a character with its own songs and interactions with other characters. I, a relative alien to the psychiatric world, found this somewhere between cheesy and unrealistic. A friend in the next seat, having experienced the rigmarole of experimenting with medication and so on, thought it was among the show's most resonant devices. I think that says a lot about this play's sincerity, not to discard the irony that each of us saw a hallucination differently.
The music is live, conducted glitteringly by Lena Gabrielle. I note this because the musicians were hidden behind the stage and struggled against a sound system that seemed to hate them. (I had assumed the score was canned.) At times, the performance I saw turned into a fracas between the musicians, the singers and technology. It got hard to understand only in the more bombastic numbers where the whole family is singing; you might want to read some lyrics online after the show.