It's telling that the committee that conferred the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Drama upon Next to Normal celebrated its examination of mental illness as "expand[ing] the scope of subject matter for musicals." The reason: Musical theater has long been inhabited by the distinctly non-neurotypical.
The examples abound: the sensitive depiction of Clara, a woman whose development is arrested after a head injury in The Light in the Piazza, and the central characters in two celebrated rock musicals—The Who's Tommy and Pink Floyd's The Wall. The denizens of Sondheim's Assassins and Weiss' Marat/Sade occupy altered states of mind (while the tribe in Hair gleefully pursues them). And none of the principals in Sweeney Todd, Phantom, Sunset Boulevard or Kiss of the Spider Woman exactly qualifies for the mental hygiene award.
I think Next to Normal's putative breakthrough derives from two things. It sympathetically explores the life of Diana, a wife and mother who is reduced in one doctor's notes to "bipolar depressive with delusional episodes." Moreover, it also brings mental illness home—or at least to a certain type of home: a middle-class, white, American family. Many earlier stage treatments were content to exploit and sensationalize (and, in doing, distance us from) mental disease. By comparison, both Normal and Piazza treat it as a not-so-simple fact of their characters' lives and probe its causes, effects and potential outcomes.
Or at least that's the case until playwright Brian Yorkey indulges in one too many twists of plot that appear too reminiscent of the work of M. Night Shyamalan. Though it's not enough to zero out the achievements that have come before, a late and far-too-clever turn needlessly calls into question the validity of Diana's marriage, her diagnosis and, inescapably, some of the issues Next to Normal has tried to raise.
On opening night, music director Nancy Whelan's sextet ably explored an engaging and contemporary Tom Kitt score that strays only occasionally into the generic. But Yorkey's deft, insightful lyrics repeatedly were sacrificed to a muddy sound mix, exacerbated later by a possible speaker malfunction on the right side of the house.
Under Cody Cunningham's direction, Jessika Brust soulfully explores bewildered central character Diana, but a too-stoic Kenneth Griggs displays little emotional bandwidth, even in his most disclosing solos. Kelsey Walston made increasingly interesting discoveries as she moved into her character, troubled daughter Natalie, on opening night, but Dalton Hood seemed far too old to be her potential high-school boyfriend, Henry. While it's unclear if the lack of development we ever see in Gabe, Natalie's brother, is a function of the script, Kevin Ferguson ably supports as Diana's two doctors.
Though Next to Normal brings us closer to an unquiet mind, we never quite make it inside. That journey awaits another musical.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Head cases."