Next to Normal isn’t your standard Broadway musical. But this offbeat Pulitzer Prize-winner, now receiving a solid production at West Chester’s Resident Theatre Company, shines a light on a condition that, unexpectedly, turns out to be a perfect fit for a musical drama.
Its central character, Diana, suffers from bipolar disorder – she’s a model housewife one moment, a babbling, hallucinating mess the next. Her ineffectual husband can’t handle her; their teenage daughter Natalie is crumbling after years of parental neglect; and their son Gabe, while comforting and supportive toward Diana, isn’t all that he seems at first.
Diana’s doctor prescribes medication, which blunts Diana’s highs and lows; in the show’s most touching ballad, she sings “I miss the mountains/I miss my life.” Eventually Diana turns to electroshock therapy – and while she’s warned about possible side effects, the results aren’t what she expects.
Doesn’t sound very uplifting, does it? True, Next to Normal does get unrelentingly bleak at times. While there are plenty of funny moments, only Natalie’s reassuring boyfriend Henry offers any consistent lightness. Yet despite its demanding subject matter, Next to Normal is an affecting, involving piece of theatre. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are full of insightful observations, sketching out complex characters with fine detail. You’ll feel their pain, but you’ll feel you know them too. Tom Kitt’s exhilarating music includes everything from modern rock to gentle waltzes, yet feels unified, with a driving force that propels the story.
The six cast members play off each other well under Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell’s direction. Nikki Van Cassele makes Diana a compelling, honest combination of boldness and fragility. She’s well-matched with Chelsey Ristaino, who conveys all the frustrations of the daughter who’s constantly aggravated by her mother’s unpredictability. And Alex Kunz is dynamic as the son asserting his place in the family. But Galen Murphy-Hoffman, as husband Dan, spends much of the show wearing an aloof, pensive expression and coming off as too disconnected from the action. There’s good support from Christopher Sheehan as Natalie’s gentle boyfriend and John Wilkening as a series of doctors who, in Diana’s off-kilter view, seem alternatingly reassuring or alarming.
All six are robust singers. Van Cassele’s rich vibrato lends warmth to introspective songs like “You Don’t Know,” and Ristaino’s big voice drives the haunting “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” And Van Cassele, Murphy-Hoffman and Kunz team up to turn the hard-rocking “I Am the One” into a heroic display of belting.
Corey Everly leads a six-piece offstage band, and Damien Figueras’ well-balanced sound design makes every lyric stand out; Van Cassele’s enunciation is especially impressive. Lily Fossner’s lighting uses a palette of bright, basic colors that often match the pills Diana downs.
Brian Dudkiewicz’s set design is dominated by a series of platforms that the actors sometimes had trouble maneuvering. And Kayla Speedy’s costumes tend to unnecessarily age the actors; Van Cassele’s frocks make her look too matronly, and the teens wear clothes that seem too mature for them.
Resident Theatre Company’s Next to Normal feels true to life, even if you don’t know anyone like Diana. And that’s quite an achievement.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Next to Normal plays through Sunday, October 15, 2017 at Resident Theatre Company, performing at The Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center – 226 North High Street, in West Chester, PA. Tickets can be purchased online.