Breaking Open the Dysfunctional Family: Valium is my Favorite Color

Did you ever go to a show, and see your life on the stage? That happened to me last night, in a sense, when we went to the Ahmanson Theatre to see Next to Normal, the 2009 Tony/2010 Pulitzer award winning musical.

Next to Normal” tells the story of a dysfunctional family: the mother (Diana) who is falling deeper and deeper into the depths of her mental illness (bipolar); the father (Dan) who is attempting to hold it all together; the daughter Natalie who has been lost in the shuffle, and the son, Gabriel, who is the lynchpin for Diana’s illness. It is the story about how holding on to something too tightly can be just as damaging as not holding it enough… or at all. It is the story of how treating mental illness is not an exact science; although doctors offer a range of treatments from pharmacology to talk therapy to hypnosis to even stronger therapies, it is just throwing spaghetti on the wall. It is the story of Natalie and Henry, and how being in the middle of dysfunction and mental illness can affect a teen relationship… and how one can use substances to attempt to run away from problems, but it doesn’t help. Ultimately, it is the story of family, and that things don’t always work out how you expect them, but hopefully they work out for the best.

Next to Normal” is such a great musical due to its honest treatment of mental illness. We see there is no cut-and-dried treatment. In “Next to Normal”, the triggering event for Diana is the death of her son at 8 months. She never lets go of the grief; rather, she embraces it and truly keeps her son alive in her mind, to the detriment of everything else. Although initially she could apparently cope (and even had another child shortly after), she began to lose it as her daughter got older. This impacted her daughter, for her mother never drew close to her. Diana’s husband, Dan, reacted in the other direction: he detached from his son, wanting to hide the memories away in a box, and live focused on the present. The latter (as the musical implies) is equally unhealthy, but is more acceptable to society. It also showed the differences in thinking for many men, who make a commitment to be there for the ones we love; good or bad, we hold things together.

One reason this musical works so well is that it hits home for many. I’m sure many in the audience were saying: there were elements of my life on stage. I know that was true for me. When my brother died in 1970, I think my mother never let go of her grief and blame. There’s a line in this show (which I’m paraphrasing) that says grief that is held on to for more than four months is pathological. Perhaps, as I saw it drive my mother deeper into the valium and other meds, with my father holding things together. The musical hits home for those that live with depression: the inability to get anything done and how that affects the family. It hits home with those who live with the manic side as well: the up-at-all-hours unpredictability that is equally taxing. This hits home—it is a deeply personal, touching musical.

Many see musicals as puff-pieces: a song, a dance, a light story. Many are. But some are much, much more. These are the ones where the music serves to amplify the emotional depth of the story. “Next to Normal” is one of those shows (Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade and “The Story of My Life are others): the music just blows you away with its emotion and power. Even if you can’t see the musical, I urge you to listen to the cast album.

The casting of this show was perfection: Alice Ripley as Diana, Asa Somers as Dan, Emma Hunton as Natalie, Curt Hansen as Gabe, Preston Sadleir as Henry, and Jeremy Kushnier as Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine. Ripley, of course, was the star. She has a unique voice (reminds me a bit of Brenda Vaccaro in its depth) that handled the rockish score reasonably well. But what Ripley brought to the role was her emotion: it came out in her acting, her movement, and her voice. This was a woman in pain; a woman trying to keep it together while her brain was tearing it apart. Somers, on the other hand, was a pillar of strength. You could see from his acting how much he worked to hold it all together; his singing brought out his exasperation and frustration with what life had dealt him. My favorite, however, was neither of the two leads—I was enamored with Hunton as Natalie. She had such a beautiful voice, and played the character so well that you cared about her deeply. The two younger men, Curt Hansen and Preston Sadlier captured their characters well and had strong singing voices. Lastly, as the doctors, Kushnier brought an appropriate sense of medical detachment to the stage. Credit should also go to Michael Greif, the director (assisted by Laura Pietropinto, whose husband was medical advisor), for working with this cast to bring out the emotion and the little nuances in performance that make this play such a gem.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Musically, the production is rock oriented, although not at too loud of a level (it doesn’t have the amps of a Spring Awakening or American Idiot). The rock songs are perfect for this show, for rock is raw emotion on stage. Conventional show tunes wouldn’t work here: they are saccarine songs—overly sweet for happy happy thoughts, or slow ballads for the sad. Amplification is a good theme here: just as the lens of mental illness can amplify existing problems, the music in this show amplifies the emotion. Credit for this wonderful score goes to Tom Kitt (Composer) and Brian Yorkey (Librettist/Lyricist). Orchestrations were by Kitt and Michael Starobin. Charlie Alterman was the Musical Supervisor. Bryan Perri was the Musical Director and led the on-stage Next to Normal Band, assisted by Rick Bertone. the band consisted of Perri on piano, Craig Magnano on guitars, Michael Pearce on bass, Shannon Ford on drums and percussion, Jennifer Choi on violin, and David Mergen on cello. Vocal arrangemetns were by Annmarie Milazzo. Musical staging was by Sergio Trujillo, assisted by Dontee Kiehn.

Turning to the technical. The stage was laid out in a very “Rent”ish style, with three levels, a stylized house, numerous blue and clear lights, and abstract panels that suggested both a house and Diana’s eyes, as if the house was her mind and we were opening up and looking in. This set design was by Mark Wendland. The lighting by Kevin Adams conveyed the mood well: harsh at times, blues and purples, reds and oranges. It was electric, and didn’t overuse either moving lights or spots. The sound by Brian Ronan was clear, although at times it was difficult to clearly hear Diana over the band. The costumes by Jeff Mahshie were suitably contemporary. Technical supervision was by Larry Morley. Michael McGoff was production stage manger, with Rachel Zack as stage manager, and Timothy Eaker as assistant stage manager. Judith Schoenfeld was the production supervisor.

Next to Normal” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until January 2nd. Go see it—it will knock your socks off. You can purchase tickets online. For discount tickets, call 213.628.2772 and ask for HotTix, $20 limited view orchestra or box seats, 2 per call, no service charge.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. “Next to Normal” was my last live theatre for 2010; theatre closes for Karen and Erin on Christmas Eve with West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices, and will likely see a movie that afternoon). The new year, 2011, starts slow. January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. I’m exploring getting tickets for “Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein on January 29 at ICT Long Beach (I’m just waiting for tickets to show up on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix). February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. March opens with another concert: this time, it’s Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes on March 4. The Blank Theatre is revisiting Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” (February 5- March 20, 2011), which I’m hoping to ticket on March 5. Lastly, March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. April will bring the Renaissance Faire, “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and “The All Night Strut” at The Colony Theatre. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.