Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Next to Normal" is an unflinching look at how mental illness affects an entire family, not just the person suffering from mental illness. The story is related through a rock-infused score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It won three 2009 Tony Awards as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. In fact, the story is so potent that it might stand alone, but the music allows for a fuller expression of emotions.
The central character is Diana, a wife and mother who has been dealing with her mental illness for perhaps 16 years. She's portrayed by Alice Ripley, reprising her Tony-winning performance in a gut-wrenching display of emotions scoured raw. Her long-suffering, supportive husband, Dan, is played by Asa Somers, who makes him patient, loving and ever-hopeful despite setback after setback. They're the parents of 16-year-old Natalie (Emma Hunton), who tries to win her parents' love by being an overachieving student but who has her own setback when she begins indiscriminately popping her mother's mind-altering pills.
Another part of the family is Gabe (Curt Hansen), Diana and Dan's son who died before his first birthday and who would be about 18 if he were still alive. He still lives in Diana's fantasies, and that's a big part of her problem. Preston Sadleir plays Natalie's 17-year-old boyfriend, Henry, who starts her on the pathway to drugs. He soon becomes alarmed at how far she goes along that path, but he remains loyal and loving toward her. Completing the cast is Jeremy Kushnieras Diana's psychiatrists. The first Dr. Fine, treats her problem by throwing pills at it. The second, Dr. Madden, uses a variety of other techniques, including electro-convulsive therapy -- electrical shocks administered to the brain.
The three-level set is designed by Mark Wendland with lighting by Kevin Adams. Costumes are by Jeff Mahshie with sound by Brian Ronan. Musical director, conductor and keyboardist Bryan Perri is part of the seven-person orchestra, which is seated on both sides of the set's upper two levels.
Mental illness is a heavy duty subject matter for a musical, and the show's resolution, although hopeful, is not entirely reassuring. Still, the performances, as directed by Michael Greif, are powerful and the story itself gripping. My guess is that many families that have coped with mental illness will see a lot that is familiar and probably painful. Still, the show is a testament to the need to find better, more effective ways to treat mental illness and to help all those who confront it on a daily basis.