By Judith Cookis Rubens
A good night at the theater makes you think. A great night, it could be argued, makes you feel.
In the case of “Next to Normal,” the contemporary musical now at Farmers Alley Theatre, you will do both. Deeply.
In fact, you’ll probably do so much “feeling” (and/or crying), that you might regret ever meeting the Goodman family, the foursome whose sorrow, guilt and denial take audiences down a dark path with only a glimmer of hopeful light at the end.
Still, despite its intense subjects of mental illness and family dysfunction, this Pulitzer-winning musical’s layered storytelling, driving beats and powerhouse vocals make it deeply affecting.
Director Kathy Mulay expertly guides a dynamic, six-person cast – each one essential and at the top of their game – through this entirely sung-through musical (in the rock-opera vein of “Rent” and “Spring Awakening”). A energetic orchestra, located off-stage, adds intensity.
Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey’s 2009 award-winning score contains unconventional plot surprises that shouldn’t be revealed here.
On the surface we get this: Anxious suburban Mom, Diana (Michelle Duffy), is bipolar, and alternates between extreme manic periods and deep bouts of depression. Later, we learn she’s hallucinating again. Pills, talk therapy – even electric shock treatments – can’t bring her back to “normal.” Her steadfast, supportive husband, Dan (Trey Ellett), is the clean-up guy, the one who keeps the plates spinning at home for the couple’s teen children: Gabe (Alex Prakken) and Natalie (Adrienne Eller).
As Diana’s condition deteriorates, we see her family crumbling under the guilt of their helplessness, misplaced anger, and grief over past losses. That’s not to mention the questions the show raises about the limits of modern psychopharmacology.
Broadway actress Michelle Duffy fully inhabits Diana, expertly translating her frantic energy, soul-crushing grief, and, later, her mind’s blank emptiness. In a powerful ballad, “I Miss the Mountains,” she angrily describes the mind-numbing effects of psychiatric meds.
Eller, as the troubled, overachiever daughter, gives an equally impressive performance as Natalie, the one so wounded by her mother’s disease and inattention that she vacillates between craving Diana’s approval and panicking that she’ll wind up like her someday. This distrust of love pushes Natalie away from the romantic interests of her amiable high school boyfriend, Henry (a thoroughly believable Ryan Vasquez).
The remaining male players also deliver. Ellett, as steadying husband, Dan, exudes calming vocals to counter Diana’s heights. Prakken, as the devil/angel son, Gabe, charges each encounter with a slight hint of madness, foreshadowing something off-kilter. Even Jeremy Koch, playing two of Diana’s doctors, adds some much-needed humor during a hallucination scene.
Though the husband-wife dynamic is compelling, in Mulay’s production, it’s the juxtaposition of Diana and her daughter that becomes the more engaging aspect. We yearn for their connection and their Act Two duet, “Maybe,” is beautifully executed.
Music director Catherine Walker Adams leads her performers and musicians through a very complex score, ranging from pulsing rock to haunting lullaby. Some sections are more memorable than others (“Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” “I’m Alive,” and “Better Than Before,” among them), but all serve to advance the story. Designer Nick Mahmat offers a workable industrial set that keeps audiences focused on feeling.
One odd misstep, however, is the ending. For such a realistic, unconventional book, the show’s final number, “Light,” feels too safe, too “feel-good musical” to conclude this otherwise stark look at life’s roller coaster of emotion.
As Diana notes in “I Miss the Mountains,” she misses the ups and downs that she experienced before the meds.
If you’re looking for a simple, breezy theatrical escape, this isn’t your show.
But just know you’ll be giving up the chance to experience – raw and unmedicated – the mountainous peaks and deep valleys of human emotion. It hurts, sure, but you’re guaranteed to feel more alive by the end.
‘Next to Normal’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Thursday-Sunday through June 23. 2 hours, 20 minutes. $27-$31. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com