‘Next to Normal’ offers unfiltered portrayal of mental anguish

March 1, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Something is not quite right about the Goodman family.

The bright and chipper matriarch, Diana, bounds to the breakfast table after a sleepless night to assemble enough sandwiches to supply a church picnic. Only, rather than the table, Diana uses the floor.

Alice Ripley (left) and Jeremy Kushnier perform in the celebrated musical ‘Next to Normal,’ a wrenching account of a woman’s struggle against mental illness. By Craig Schwartz

“Next to Normal” drops the pretense in the opening moments, as the Goodmans’ song about another ordinary day morphs into a call for help. Indeed, as patriarch Dan (Asa Somers) notes in the opening number, the family is “living on a latte and a prayer” amid the domestic tumult.

“Next to Normal” plumbs the mental illness afflicting Diana and unflinchingly details the corrosive effects the disease has on a suburban family. The subject matter sounds bleak and, no, the musical does not sugarcoat or recoil from the more unpleasant moments in the unending struggle against mental illness.

“Next to Normal” earned Tony Awards by the sackful and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Beneath the hardware is a musical unlike others in recent memory.

“Next to Normal” precursor “Feeling Electric” received tune-ups at Village Theatre in Issaquah. Village Theatre alumnus and Issaquah High School grad Brian Yorkey is responsible for the searing book and lyrics.

The national tour at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle is gutsy and groundbreaking. The much-lauded “Next to Normal” tackles mental illness in candid and serious moments — but the musical also jabs the medical establishment in comic bursts.

“I’m no sociopath,” Diana sings at hurricane force. “I’m no Sylvia Plath.”

Alice Ripley is the manic-depressive mother struggling to reach a harbor in the maelstrom.

(Ripley originated the role Off Broadway, remained on board for subsequent retoolings, earned a Tony during the Broadway run and reprises the role on the national tour.)

Doctors (Jeremy Kushnier portrays both shrinks) encourage Diana to pop antidepressants and antipsychotics like Tic Tacs.

The nebulous diagnoses and shot-in-the-dark treatments escalate until, after still more medication, Diana claims to no longer feel anything. The doctor declares the patient to be stable.

The cast sings the pharmacopeia used in unsuccessful attempts to calm the discord and, in another verse, rattles off possible side effects in the manner of a drug commercial on TV.

Such moments add a pleasing irony to “Next to Normal” as the cast delivers the lines from behind straight faces.

“Valium is my favorite color,” Diana coos.

The actors, more often than not, sing lines from a puddle of tears.

Daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton) is intelligent and eager to please, but Diana is too busy fretting about son Gabe (Curt Hansen) to care. Dan is a doting husband, a man desperate for a medical or pharmacological solution to the strife.

In moments used for comic relief throughout, Dan beseeches Natalie not to curse — a futile attempt to impose order as the family spins out of control into the abyss.

Natalie is pushed aside as Diana fusses about Gabe. The strange sibling rivalry between the teenagers is fodder for “Superboy and The Invisible Girl” — a showcase for teen angst.

Hansen, all muscle, sinew and attitude, stalks the set like a phantom. Preston Sadleir is charming as Henry, a classmate raring to help Natalie experience life beyond calculus textbooks and piano practice.

Ripley is still spirited and stunning in the role after so many performances, but the actress’ voice sounded raspy and uneven — perhaps due to a cold? — on opening night Feb. 24.

The ceaseless rock score — performed by musicians squirreled in corners on the multi-tiered set — maintains a surging pace.

The action unfolds on a metal set, part scaffold and part subdivision, a Pop Art dollhouse. Designer Mark Wendland uses oversized eyes emblazoned on retractable panels to convey the turmoil inside the Goodman household.

Kevin Adams’ lighting — aside from some strobe-light gimmickry for the electroshock effect — is used for marvelous, and sometimes chilling, effect to indicate shifts in mood.

The staging gels as Diana swerves from manic highs and then into a bottomless pit of depression. The audience has no choice but to hold on tight for the ride.

If you go

‘Next to Normal’

  • The 5th Avenue Theatre
  • 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle
  • Through March 13
  • Show times vary
  • $22 – $100
  • 206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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