Musical With a Message

ATC's 'Next to Normal' is a powerful, well-produced play that tackles the stigma of mental illness

Entertaining. Sophisticated. Thoughtful and incisive. Emotionally rich.

These qualities all characterize Arizona Theatre Company's season opener, Next to Normal. But because the subject of mental illness is at the heart of the story—bipolar disorder, specifically—the musical earns another judgment: It's amazing.

Musicals that take on serious subjects are nothing new. But the originality of Next to Normal lies not only in its subject matter, but also in the way it tells its story. Yes, we see a family caught up in the complicated consequences of serious mental illness. This makes it relatable. But the play is also a full-out, unapologetic exploration of a subject that is still somewhat taboo, even though it has in ways great and small affected all of us. The play feels intensely personal, even raw. But as a piece of theater, it is exquisitely refined.

Next to Normal is the result of a half-decade of development by the young duo of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010, and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three, including Best Musical Score.

A ghostly son, a neglected daughter, a sacrificing husband and a wife/mother with bipolar disorder constitute the family Kitt and Yorkey have created. We witness Diana (Kendra Kassebaum) as she struggles to live with an illness in a world where psychiatry and psychopharmacology struggle to treat it. Heavy-duty drugs with side effects that feel worse than the disease itself are prescribed in experimentation, as doctors try to find just the right combination and dosage. Electroconvulsive therapy is back in vogue as a treatment choice for the folks who don't respond to other treatments—shocking a brain into memory-less submission.

We also get to know Natalie (Andrea Ross), a bright but resentful teenager, disbelieving that a young suitor can actually find her lovable. And we watch as husband and father Dan (Joe Cassidy) steadfastly supports his wife, but neglects to tend to his own grief and growth.

Yes, there are songs about all of this. In fact, the story is told only in song, with incisive and clever lyrics driven by a score with echoes from numerous musical traditions, but that is also fresh and contemporary. Particularly memorable is Diana's "You Don't Know":

Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head?

Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?

It's like living on a cliff side not knowing when you'll dive.

Do you know, do you know what it's like to die alive?

And the energy of son Gabe's song about unresolved grief pierces like a knife:

But I'm alive, I'm alive, I am so alive

And I feed on the fear that's behind your eyes

And I need you to need me, it's no surprise

I'm alive, so alive

The show requires a talented and skilled company, and director David Ira Goldstein has found a superior one.

Although Kassebaum reads a bit young, her Diana manifests just the right balance of the extremes of her mental illness; her performance ensures our sympathy while it also, if we confess, exposes our sometimes secret and shameful repulsion of those who are seriously mentally ill. Cassidy is solid as Dan, the husband so caring and attentive and self-sacrificing that he is almost an enabler for the emotional chaos under his roof. Especially impressive is young Ross, who gives voice to the confusion and anger of a troubled but spirited teenager, and who lends a stunningly strong voice musically. As son Gabe, Jonathan Shew embodies the unique presence of youthful indomitability. A.J. Holmes is a sweet stoner, persistent in his pursuit of Natalie, and Mark Farrell portrays a couple of psychiatrists who take differing paths in their treatment of Diana.

A story like this has the potential to be overwhelming, devastating, even depressing. But music has the power to transform and transcend. Here, accompanied by a capable orchestra led by Christopher McGovern, these six actors somehow sound like 60. Their voices soar and blend and energize the complications of their tangled lives.

John Ezell's set is simple and busy at the same time. The outlines of a house are layered, almost mazelike, but the walls are transparent, which, coupled with David Lee Cuthbert's lights and projections, reflect the story's many emotional shades and help define specific locales. Kish Finnegan's costumes help define the characters and never upstage them.

The word "victim" has been in the news of late, and mental illness certainly victimizes. But this Next to Normal helps us realize that we all are victims; we are forever being acted upon by things—people, genes, hurricanes—over which we have no control. It's a story that shows us there is beauty and power in our vulnerability. It sings a story of the maddening complexities of life with humor and compassion, and it celebrates the creative energy that is right there alongside the hurt, the brokenness, the ghosts.

ATC gets it right. And it is amazing.

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