“Next to Normal” is the amazing, must-see, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical now playing at Meadow Brook Theatre. It is unlike any musical you’ve seen to date – dealing honestly with the complex emotions of family members dealing with mental illness. If it’s hard to imagine a musical about a woman with bi-polar disorder, try to imagine a better way to express pain, longing and heartache than through music. That’s what this play is about.
The beautiful, haunting music by Tom Kitt, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, instantly pulls us into the coping strategies of a “regular” suburban family whose lives are undone by the mother’s struggle to find clarity, sanity and an existence “next to normal.”
The cast delivers, with vocals that are nothing short of heart-rending. This is the real deal. Stephanie Wahl (“The 39 Steps,” “Nunset Boulevard”) is brilliant as Diana, the beautiful mother whose life swings between manic delusion and a numb, medicated, twilight existence. Her family is also in thrall to her mental illness, and that adds to her pain without helping her find healing. Her loving husband Dan, played with sweet optimism by George Andrew Wolff (national tour of “A Christmas Story”) is desperate to have his wife back and eager for Diana to try any treatment that offers a shred of hope. Real-life siblings Ryan Naimy and Jessica Naimy, who grew up in Troy, are amazing as Gabe and Natalie, the brother and sister in this dysfunctional family. Hearing them sing together is a joy. Jason Cabral, whom Detroit audiences enjoyed watching at the Hilberry Theatre (“The Full Monty”), is sweet and funny as Henry, the would-be high school sweetheart of Natalie. And Eric Gutman (“Spreading it Around”) is in his full power as the two different doctors who treat Diana.
What rings true about this show – and what makes it so moving – is that the doctors seem almost as desperate as the family to find a “cure.” And yet even they know that the odds are against them. As the play reveals more about Diana’s illness and what triggered her rapid decline, the audience finds itself in an empathetic role – at a loss to know what to hope for and, in the big picture, unsure regarding what constitutes humane treatment when a “happy ending” is beyond reach.
“Next to Normal” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009. “It won three, including Best Original Score,” said director Travis W. Walter. “The minute I saw it, I knew I wanted to share this emotional journey with our Meadow Brook family.”
Congratulations to Mr. Walter for bringing this substantive, thought-provoking play to Meadow Brook. Although this isn’t exactly the fun, easy entertainment we’ve come to expect from Meadow Brook, this is arguably the most powerful production they’ve staged in recent memory. And with mental illness so much in the news, we urge everyone to see this play. If nothing else, it underscores how deeply personal the nature of the illness is, and in this instance, how the manifestation of the illness is as unique as the sorrows that triggered it.
Making this emotion palpable is the work of an outstanding band, conducted by Michael Rice, who doubles on synthesizer. This score showcases solo instruments in the most effective way, and the band serves as an extension of the cast: Sig Hepler on guitar, Joan Hovda on cello, PJ Vasquez on bass, Nick Matthews on percussion and Anne Ristich on violin. Artistic Director Travis W. Walter is ably supported by Terry W. Carpenter, stage manager, with an inspired set design by Jeremy Barnett, costumes by Liz Moore, lighting by Reid G. Johnson and sound by Mike Duncan.
Make a point of seeing “Next to Normal,” which runs through March 10 at Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester. Show times vary and matinee performances are offered on weekdays and weekends, so check the website for scheduling. Tickets range from $25 to $40 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing. Please note that “Next to Normal” does contain mature language and situations and is not recommended for children.