Through Sat 7/21
On April 15, 2009, Next to Normal opened on Broadway. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony for Best Musical and to become part of a small group of musicals including Rent, Spring Awakening, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, The Band’s Visit and Hamilton which would change the nature of the American musical from pure entertainment to “message musicals,” which tell tales of significant social relevance, including examining such topics as mental and physical illness, rape, political intrigue, historical conflicts and suicide.
The Broadway production starred Kent State grad Alice Ripley, who won the Tony Award for her portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder. Ripley also starred in the show’s national tour which had a CLE stop.
Next to Normal is not typical Porthouse escapist summer fare. There are no sprightly songs, dynamic dancing or escapist plot. What there is is a well-written, dramatic tale, filled with angst. The music helps carry the thought-provoking mood, and the lyrics and dialogue tell a powerful tale which “addresses the issues of grief, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and the underbelly of suburban life.”
The script, which many theater experts rank among of the greatest of American musicals, has had numerous international productions, has been the topic for mental health conferences and workshops on the treatment of bipolar disorder, including the use of drugs, psychotherapy, and ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy), as well as discussions regarding the classification of the disease Diane displays.
In general, mental health experts agree, “Bipolar I is a mood disorder that is characterized by alternating periods of depression [lows] with episodes of mania [highs].”
The show’s song list is extensive and impressive. Almost 40 songs carry the message, including “Just Another Day,” “Who’s Crazy,” “It’s Gonna Be Good,” “I’m Alive,” “Wish I Were Here,” “You Don’t Know,” “Maybe (Next to Normal)” and “Light.” This is not a score which the audience goes out of the theater humming, but melds into a cacophony of sounds and words that build a long remembered message.
How did the audience respond to this thought-provoking musical? The Porthouse production easily passed the “C-W-R” test. When viewing a show, if the participants aren’t totally involved there will be a series of coughs, lots of wiggling and restlessness (leaving mid-show to go to the lavatory or run for the exits as soon as the final curtain drops). This crowd was absorbed, rising as a whole at the conclusion to cheer the production. This in spite of the fact that on opening night a sold-out audience was screaming its way through a rock-rap concert at the Blossom Pavilion, within easy hearing distance.
The response was not only a tribute to the script itself, but to the quality of the production. Jim Weaver’s direction was intelligent, developing every nuance of the writer’s intent. The cast was superb. Each actor developed a clear characterization. They did not play characters; they were the people. They each sang meanings, not simply words, in well-trained voices.
Jonathan Swoboda’s musicians (Wanda Sobieska, Linda Atherton, Jeremey Poparad, Don T. Day and Mell Csicsila) balanced the singers so that the lyrics were easy to understand and set the proper, ever-changing moods of the psychological swings. Patrick Ulrich’s contemporary set was functional, while the technical aspects each helped develop the writer’s concept.
Amy Fritsche (Diana) created a mentally delusional Diana who was totally believable. Her mood swings had clear transitions, her suffering was crystal clear, her attempts at reality well-displayed. This was a masterful portrayal. Thom Christopher Warren (Dan), as Diana’s well-meaning but shell-shocked husband, displayed a clear vision of hurt, confusion and frustration.
Andy Donnelly (Henry) and Madelaine Vandenberg (Natalie) played well off each other as the angst-driven teens who needed each other for support as the rest of the world had seemingly abandoned them. Madison Adams Hagler was appealing as the “ghost” of Gabe. It was fascinating to observe as the cast, except for Frische, looked through him, as he was only present and real for his grieving mother. Jim Bray gave nicely textured performances as both psychiatrists who were treating Diana.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Next to Normal is one of the great scripts in the lexicon of American musical theater. It gets a superb staging at Porthouse. The direction, performances and technical aspects are all right on target. This is a must see production that should not be missed!
Next to Normal runs at Porthouse Theatre through Sat 7/21. For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to porthousetheatre.
[Written by Roy Berko, Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]