Updated: Mar 25, 2022
There, Amid the Music, a Fragmented Mind is on the Edge
No show stemming from Broadway these days makes such a direct grab for the heart or wrings it as thoroughly as the 2008 American rock musical, “Next to Normal.” This brave, breathtaking testament to psychoanalysis, which opened January 28th at Chance Theater in Anaheim, now with only two more weekends of play, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.
“Next to Normal” does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead, this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the hybrid of fractured people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.
The show is appropriately named in more ways than one. Its title reflects not only the state of the clan at its center, striving for all-American averageness, but also the essence of the show. To watch this tale of a haunted housewife and the household she in turn haunts is to ride a speeding roller coaster of sensibilities. One minute you’re chuckling under your breath; the next, you’re wiping your eyes. When the show ends, you’re probably emotionally drained.
Such stirring rigor is a point of honor for “Next to Normal,” sensitively directed by LA Drama Critics Circle Award winner Matthew McCray (“The Other Place”) and musically directed by the incredible Stephen Hulsey (“Sweeney Todd”), throbbing with an emotional intensity that cannot be dismissed as synthetic. The production may even be likened somewhat to its counterpart, “Spring Awakening,” the little musical about adolescent sexual angst, steeped in an inescapable, aching compassion for people crippled by pain.
A strong, surging tidal score by Tom Kitt, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey enables an evocatively touching force of passion and jaggedness from Jocelyn A. Brown (“Into The Woods”) as Diana Goodman, a housewife with bipolar disorder, as well as astounding performances from vocally flawless Chance newcomer Tym Brown (“Rent”) as Dan, the moving and moreish Jaylen Baham (“In The Heights”) as Gabe, the resonant, spine-chilling Andie Chavez (“Edges: A Song Cycle”) as Natalie, the intensely gifted Jared Machado (“The Merchant of Venice”) as Henry, and the versatile and ever-impressive Ovation nominee, Ron Hastings (“Fun Home”) as Dr. Madden.
Though the chalk dust in the air can be clawing, this production assesses the losses that occur when wounded people are anesthetized and not just by the battery of pharmaceutical and controversial medical treatments to which Diana is subjected, but by recreational drugs, alcohol and that good old American virtue, denial with a smile.
Much of what happens is schematic to the point that everywhere you go in the show, there is illustrative and symbolic dysfunction. This includes the paralleling of Dan and Diana’s marriage with Natalie and Henry’s lopsided relationship; Natalie’s rigid quest for perfection in school because she can’t have it at home; and the symbolic problems generated by treatment-induced memory loss. Even the lyrics traffic in Lifetime-style buzzwords. People sing with some regularity of wanting to “begin to heal,” and they ask questions like: “Who’s crazy: the one who’s uncured? Or maybe the one who’s endured?”
Yorkey’s lyrics are more likely to take the form of questions than answers. Kitt’s score, while sustaining the electric momentum of a rock opera, keeps shifting shapes, suggesting a restless, questing spectrum of moods. Sometimes these lean toward big-voiced sentimentality (as in the finale, which repeats “Let there be light” at over-amped volume). But a number of musical idioms are sprinkled in unexpectedly, from country-western ballads for Diana’s elegy to the heady highs of her illness, to stadium power-rock (“Feeling Electric”) for the, gulp! electro-shock sequence.
Ms. Brown also reveals a gleaming sardonic side that captures Diana’s wry detachment from herself while never trivializing the hurt and bewilderment at her core. And Mr. Brown (no relation), in excellent voice, summons an embattled strength that makes Dan the show’s true emotional anchor. Both performances stay with you, and they only get better in memory.
One of her two doctors (played by Mr. Hastings), says there is no neat description or explanation for what she suffers from. This revelation adds full weight to the confusion and ambivalence that afflict not only Diana but also everyone around her, including Natalie’s new boyfriend, a likably sweet stoner named Henry (Mr. Machado), who she bandies about, not sure whether to fully commit or not ("Perfect For You").
This show is less about connecting the dots than about life as a state of fragmentation. None of this would count for much, though, if the cast members didn’t convey this disconnectedness with the fluidity and intensity that they achieve here.
Mr. Brown’s Dan is a man that wants nothing more than for his family to be normal. As a husband, he is protective, worried, and stressed; as a result, he can be selfish and even passive-aggressive. The bottom line is that he struggles with an ongoing dilemma, the choice between his own personal interest and happiness, and what he feels he needs to do to care for his wife. Dan tries to keep his household together the best he can, but in reality it doesn’t turn out the way he would want, and he realizes that he has little control over his destiny. Still, he chooses to stay with Diana and give her whatever support he can ("The Cavalry").
Ron Hastings' Dr. Madden is fairly easygoing and ‘hip’, and in Diana’s mind he assumes glamorous roles — a rock star! — providing excitement and fulfilling fantasies. In reality, he is a proficient doctor, clearly concerned for the welfare of his patient and her family. Mr. Hastings sings with resonance and authority. When he is center stage, you simply cannot look away ("Open Your Eyes").
As the teenage son who is both angel and demon to his mother, Mr. Baham is contrastingly charismatic and ineffable as a figure in a dream, the kind who seems to have the solution to everything until you wake up. One of his best numbers stays with you for days, “I’m Alive.”
The notion that personality is fragile, always on the edge of decomposition, is exquisitely reflected in Ms. Chavez’s astringent, poignant Natalie — a girl who lives in fear both of being invisible to her mother and turning into her. As for the Mom that everyone loves and loathes, Ms. Brown is giving what promises to be the musical performance of the season. Her achingly exposed face and her sweet, raw-tinged voice capture every glimmer in Diana’s kaleidoscope of feelings. Anger, yearning, sorrow, guilt and the memory of what must have been love seem to coexist in every note she sings.
None of these are particularly comfortable emotions. In combination they’re a dangerous cocktail. But to experience them vicariously through Ms. Brown is to tingle with the gratitude of being able to feel them all. Diana is right when she sings that “you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.” Nor do musicals have to bubble with cheer to transport an audience as this one does.
The best musical theatre productions pull at your insides in a way that make some want to run away and others get up and cheer – they also leave you fumbling for your keys and discreetly searching for a tissue as you exit the theatre.
“Next to Normal” needed little introduction at Chance Theater in Anaheim. The multiple Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning drama about a family vexed by bipolar disorder, loss and the pain of disconnection (considerably bleaker subjects than most musicals) wowed critics when it opened, and continues to wow them now.
Together, with tenderness and poise, Director McCray and company creates a painful portrait of a family heaving under the pressure of mental illness – and the audience aches, sobs and recovers with them. Most memorably, Jocelyn A. Brown’s poignant, nuanced performance is inspiring despite Diana’s terrible sadness, offering shards of light amid the darkness this complex show explores.
NEXT TO NORMAL:
With Jocelyn A. Brown (Diana), Tym Brown (Dan), Jaylen Baham (Gabe), Angie Chavez (Natalie), Jared Machado (Henry) and Ron Hastings (Dr. Madden). Jessica James (understudy).
Music by Tom Kitt; book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey; directed by Matthew McCray; music direction by Stephen Hulsey; assistant directed by Miguel Cardenas; sets by Joe Holbrook; costumes by Christina Perez; lighting by Matt Schleicher; sound by Ryan Brodkin; stage managed by Wade Williamson. Presented by producers Linda & Todd White, Susan Bowman, & Freddie Greenfield, Laurie Smits Staude, Betty & Wylie Aitken and the family of Mary Kay Fyda-Mar; and Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. Playing January 28th – February 27th on the Cripe Stage. For tickets, please call (888) 455-4212 or visit: https://chancetheater.com/production/next-to-normal/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Camryn Long, Doug Catiller & Tanya Catiller