Gone are the days when American musical theater depicted, through song and dance, the world as it should be and not as it is, with all of its complexities. One of the more ambitious and serious-minded is the 2009 rock musical Next to Normal, and Uptown Players' regional premiere of it at the Kalita Humphreys Theater offers a stellar theatrical experience.
With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal is one of only eight musicals to have won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is not difficult to see why. The show is an emotional exploration of a dysfunctional family with a tragic past and a mother, Diana (Patty Breckenridge), struggling with bipolar disorder. Her husband, Dan (Gary Lynn Floyd), and daughter, Natalie (Erica Harte), must cope with Diana's disorder as they struggle to maintain a "normal" family.
There is a stigma that surrounds bipolar disorder. The musical explores what it means to be "normal" by helping to give a real human connection to people who suffer from this condition. But the show does more than give a voice to people who suffer from bipolar disorder. It is a reaction to the only answer that society today seems to offer—science. For all that science has accomplished, the musical seems to say, it is still incapable of fully understanding and treating the mysteries of the human psyche. As Diana ponders in "The Break," the problem may not be in the brain: "What happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain or in my blood but in my soul?"
Uptown's massive three-story set, designed by Andy Redmon, is an impressive construction allowing for multiple scenes to be performed simultaneously with virtually no changes or interruptions to the performances. Rising up the middle of the set is a staircase branching off into the two second-floor rooms. The design allows for fluid mobility among the performers, and they make full use of it running up and down the stairs, in and out of one room and one scene and into the next with intensity and purpose.
As the mother, Diana, Breckenridge gives an emotional powerhouse performance. She effectively switches from moments of humor to bitter pain and despair with adroitness and ease. Her Diana is a headstrong, assertive individual—someone who used to have her life together. And that makes her all the more tragic to watch as her mind succumbs to the challenges of bipolar disorder. Breckenridge taps into the more poignant scenes with a sensitivity that, on opening night, resulted in weeping for what sounded like the entire audience.
In the role of Dan, Floyd is a tender, good-intentioned father and husband who is desperately trying to hold his family together. He is subtle in his portrayal of a man in denial who constantly wants to look on the bright side. All of this pressure builds up, though, to a gut-wrenching scene for him in the second act as Dan must recognize his situation.
Under the skillful direction of Michael Serrecchia, this production addresses the serious questions of the story with poignancy and, at times, humor. Indeed, the strength of this production lies in the way it allows the powerful text and music to tell the story without overtly emphasizing or adding to it.
The music is the driving force. It creates depth in the characters and moves the story. The cast of this production should be commended for doing justice to these powerful songs, which range from the soft singer-songwriter style in "I Miss the Mountains" to the explosive venom in "You Don't Know."
In the song "Maybe," which Breckenridge sings in the second act, there is a line that best captures the message of the show and seems a kind of anthem for our contemporary American society filled with uncertainties: "I don't need a life that's normal. That's way too far away, but something next to normal would be okay.... close enough to normal to get by. We'll get by."
In the end, there is no real answer offered in Next to Normal; nothing with which the audience can leave relieved knowing that the world is as it should be. No, there is nothing quite so perfect here. But there is a surprising optimism that persists in these struggling characters. And hopefully that it close enough to normal for us all.