A musical about a suburban housewife grappling with mental illness? Hit the snooze button and wake my ass up in two hours. But in a glorious testament to the old adage that there are no dreadful stories, only dreadful storytellers, Next to Normal proves to be anything but trite, hollow or histrionic.
A great deal of that has to do with Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the two dudes who nabbed a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for the piece (the eighth musical to earn the accolade). The story is a compelling, insightful and complex look at the toll mental illness exacts on those saddled with it, as well as those who care about them. The content is there, but so is the form. With 38 songs and reprises crammed into less than two hours and its rock/pop score (far rockier than most of what passes as a rock musical these days), the structure and music are reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy (the original Who album, not the abortion-turned-musical).
But while the piece has literary and sonic chops, it's Joanne Gordon's stripped-down, dialed-in, perfectly cast production that imbues life into this California Repertory Co. staging. And the most triumphant performance is the one that matters most: Karole Foreman's breathtaking performance as Diana, the aforementioned housefrau. An accomplished Los Angeles performer, writer and director, Foreman does something that the Stepford Wives collection of Big Broadway Musical Actresses (the petite, pretty, overemoting divas who pop up occasionally on The View and Ellen to remind us, again, that the only theater that is truly relevant in this country is white-people theater) somehow miss on their ascent into commercial canonization: The woman can act as fiercely as she sings and as lithely as she moves. As subtle as she is tortured, Foreman's stunning performance of a woman fighting frantically against both her disease and the pharmaceuticals supposedly designed to help her deal with it is as honest and impassioned as it is funny and sobering.
Next to Normal at the Royal Theater aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 985-5526; www.calrep.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through May 10. $20-$25.
But she's only one jewel in this crown. The rest of the cast—her helpless husband, Dan (Jeff Paul); her frustrated, self-medicating daughter, Natalie (Maddie Larson); Natalie's love-spun boyfriend, Henry (Michael Barnum); Diana's shrink, Dr. Madden (Roberto Alcaraz); and her grown-up son who really isn't that grown-up, Gabe (Alexander Pimentel)—also deliver fully fleshed-out, finely tuned performances.
Whether via the script or Gordon's directorial vision, Next to Normal lacks ornate costumes, lavish sets, a bombastic score, flashy choreography, ravishing lights and all the other accouterments that keep 'em bedazzled on the Great White Way. No, there are no rousing 11 o'clock numbers or perfectly placed ballads vying to be the next musical-theater standard. And you probably won't remember a bar of music five minutes after the show ends. This is a musical aimed at the mind as much as the heart, and it strikes both targets squarely, resulting in something both soulful and agitating.
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The agitation is reserved for the true antagonist in this story: meds. While some might argue with the "science" in this tale (can a traumatic event truly trigger what her doctor defines as Diana's illness: bipolar depressive with delusional episodes?), no one can dispute the importance that medicine plays in Diana's life. Yes, her smorgasbord of pills buffers her from frantic highs and crushing lows, but it also keeps her in a perpetual state of cloudiness. She talks about how she feels she has no self any longer, of wandering with a head that feels as though it's filled with mushy concrete.
And she misses—no, she yearns—for those drastic highs (which she calls mountains), even though they bring with them the daunting crash and descent into the unfathomable valleys. Next to Normal, however, is anything but a feel-good story about a person who decides to control her own life. Diana's decision to dump her meds down the toilet may make her septic tank the happiest in the neighborhood, but it also leads to electroconvulsive therapy, memory loss and even tougher decisions down the road.
One of the more laudable aspects of a musical that is so different in terms of tone and content from most contemporary musicals—which rely on either commercial artifice or anti-musical irony—is just how normal Next to Normal is. Other than seeing things that aren't there, displaying flashes of aggressive sexuality and slapping mayo on white bread as if she's a one-person conveyor belt, Diane's illness is not portrayed as overwrought. Her struggle, as with so many towering characters, is an inner one; it may greatly impact her friends and family, but it's clear in this show that observing and dealing with the erratic, spun-out actions of mentally ill people may be no picnic, but it's nothing like what they're dealing with living in their own skin.