NEXT TO NORMAL
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) is presenting “Next to Normal,” a highly intense rock musical about mental illness. It’s not a subject one would expect to be presented successfully in musical form, however Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Tom Kitt, who composed the music, stuck with the project for nine years. As a result of polishing and re-polishing, plus the backing of several producers, including David Stone and Carole Rothman, their efforts eventually paid off. The show went to Broadway and they received a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.
Why would anyone write a musical based on such a sad subject? It appears that Yorkey (his father-in-law happens to be a psychiatrist) became interested in shock therapy after viewing a TV documentary. He hooked up with Kitt, whom he met at a theatre workshop and his idea (that began as a workshop assignment) was further developed. The pair was also inspired by the popular rock shows “Rent” and “Tommy.”
The smiling Thalia and frowning Melpomene masks are ancient Greek theatre symbols. If “Next to Normal” could be compared to a Greek tragedy, Julia Pratt, who plays the afflicted housewife, “Diana,” is the epitome of Melpomene. This goddess happens to represent music and ironically positive mental attitude. Pratt touches the audience with her stunning interpretation of this un-positive mentally disturbed role and like this muse of music she sings her tragic heart out as well.
From the beginning, the audience’s mind is treated like a tabula rasa (scientific term for “blank slate”) -- which is an interesting writing technique. At first glance, viewers believe they are witnessing a typical American family. We laugh because like most rebellious teenagers, the daughter acts spoiled, the husband is sexually fulfilled at the pre-appointed time-slot, and Diana returns to the kitchen to make peanut butter sandwiches. It’s when she picks up the pace and frantically begins to spread them all over the floor that we become puzzled and disturbed ourselves.
Mid-way through the first act we finally realize that this woman is seeing a psychiatrist because she is bi-polar and that the young man, who keeps talking to her and boisterously bounding on MTC’s stage is not her real, teenage son -- it’s a compelling fantasy taking place in her mind (he was real in our minds too -- until now). As the musical progresses, Diana is convinced by her husband to have electrical shock treatments. It’s not until a very poignant second act, when most of her memory is lost through medical intervention, that we finally learn more details about the teenager in the housewife’s imagination.
Will Erat is Pratt’s patient husband, Dan, Elisa DeMaria is the neglected daughter Natalie, Jacob Heimer plays her charming boyfriend, Henry, Logan Hart is the endearing, lost son, and Tommy Foster plays the two, unemotionally involved doctors. Some songs are melodious, contain clever lyrics, and not all of them are sad. The bouncy, “I Am Alive” and the lyrical, “How Could I Ever Forget,” are among the highlights. Despite the show’s unsatisfying ending, the audience was enlightened to the devastation mental illness can cause, and thoroughly moved by the wonderful cast directed by Kevin Connors. David Wolfson directs the excellent, four-piece band.
Plays to November 4
This review appears in “On CT&NY Theatre” October/November 2012