Unlike in the days of Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe or Rodgers and Hammerstein, musicals are no longer only about extravagant tap numbers and happy endings. In the age of “Rent” and “Spring Awakening,” with the worlds of Broadway and rock music colliding, musicals today tell all sorts of stories — and it seems as though the ones that take home the Tony Awards often entail angsty compositions and dismal plotlines.
“Next to Normal,” with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, might be the most depressing of all. The work, which centers on a woman suffering from an extreme case of bipolar disorder, opened on Broadway in April 2009 and took home three Tonys in the same year. In 2010, “Next to Normal” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — making it only the eighth musical in history to receive the award. It has since spawned many productions both all over the United States and around the globe — one of which, commissioned by Custom Made Theatre Company, is currently playing at the Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco.
The musical tells the story of an overmedicated suburban mom, Diana Goodman (Lisa-Marie Newton), who is slowly losing her grip on life as she struggles to distinguish between reality and hallucinatory episodes — most of which include visions of her dead son Gabe (Danny Gould) or her psychiatrists (both played by Perry Aliado) as rock stars. Both her husband, Dan (LaMont Ridgell), and daughter, Natalie (Mackenzie Cala), seem to be losing their minds as well as they go through their own bouts of depression. Despite finding a loving boyfriend, Henry (Jordon Bridges), and achieving high marks at school, Natalie begins stealing her mother’s drugs to escape reality and spirals down her own path of self-destruction.
To say that the storyline is chaotic would be undercutting it a little, though the show is beautifully strung together by the captivating musical score of Yorkey and Kitt. There are very few strictly spoken scenes. Similar to the likes of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” nearly the whole story is sung from beginning to end.
Newton’s portrayal of Diana is heart-stirringly magnificent. Not only is her singing breathtaking, but she is also able to capture both the daze and misery of bipolar disorder as well as the way she is enchanted by her own illness. The same can be said about the remarkable performance given by high school senior Cala. However, the most standout actor is Bridges in his portrayal of Henry, whose character, though secondary to those in the Goodman family, manages to radiate on stage. Simply put, the Bay Area newcomer has a voice comparable to those on Broadway.
Custom Made Theatre did a phenomenal job in casting those with some of the best voices in the Bay Area theater scene, and the songs are sung in a way that uphold the integrity of the work. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the acting; the skill level of some of the actors is completely off-balance with many moments of unnecessary overacting that took away from the raw feel of the story. There are even several instances in the show when what are meant to be the most serious and heart-wrenching scenes seem almost farcical. With this odd inconsistency, the end result is sadly a show rather mediocre in spite of its vocal strength.