Open the director’s note of the Next to Normal program to find the following instruction from director Allison Gold ’15: “Open yourself for the next few hours, and let yourself feel everything.”
These are pertinent words for any audience member about to see “Next to Normal.” The musical follows the ups and downs of suburban mother Diana Goodman, who struggles with the destructive effects her bipolar disorder while trying to maintain the glossy sheen of “a perfect family.” As illness pervades her life, Diana’s family becomes torn to pieces, and all characters in the musical try to cope with issues of grief, depression, drug abuse and suicide.
It’s a trying show, one that will put an audience and its cast members through the wringer. Yet Ram’s Head and the Stanford Theater Lab’s production of “Next to Normal” hits the necessary notes for a powerful production.
Immediate strengths of the production are seen quickly and clearly. From the first number, we witness impressive vocal work from the entire cast. Robert Poole ’15 as the family’s son, Samantha Williams ’17 as the daughter, and Peter Kurzner ’17 as Natalie’s boyfriend are vocal standouts in their solos, but group numbers in particular are sung with a force and skill that bring goose-bumps to the skin. The set and lighting are creatively imagined by Keenan Molner ’15 to transform the Elliot Programming Center into a new world. We watch as we move from kitchen to hospital to school and even to dream worlds, all punctuated by lighting to fit the feel and emotion.
But an important triumph of the show is the realistic range of human emotion seen in its characters. Given the plotline, the show is often solemn and serious, but this production does not miss on opportunities to demonstrate for characters to exhibit delight, compassion, fury, sarcasm and even dark, grim humor. And it all feels real.
Part of this, of course, is written into the show itself. It’s a “rock musical,” fueled by strong pop singing, thumping bass and twanging guitar, and the lyrics often demonstrate a surprising realness in the character’s struggles. Some are heavy: “Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head?” sings Diana, or Natalie sings “Some days I think I’m dying, but I’m really only trying to get through.” But others are more off-handed and even humorous, “Living on a latte and a prayer,” sings Dan, the father, and “These are a few of my favorite pills,” they all sing, in chorus.
This may appear flippant at first, in the face of such large issues. But, owed perhaps in equal parts to talented acting and smart direction, characters occupy the stage with an energy and honesty that is as deeply human in their struggles to survive— we sympathize and relate to them.
In particular, Megan Gage ’15 plays Diana with a striking instinctual ferocity. Her manic highs are stunning; she is her most natural on stage when crawling around floors or literally tangoing with her psychopharmacologist. Her approach to Diana is often sarcastic and fiery, making her feel appropriately alien to her family and the audience. When she drops into rare moments of true despair, her performance is moving. Brady Richter’s ’15 characterization of the father is at times campy, but comes from a place of authentic exhaustion and depression that feels right. The list goes on— an important authenticity is regularly detected at the heart of each of these characters. It is this commitment to humanity that makes the audience able to “feel everything” and meet Gold’s request.
Next to Normal shows this weekend, May 22-24 at 8pm, in the Elliot Programming Center. Admission is free. The show was sponsored by (among other organizations) Stanford’s Psych One program, to integrate arts and academics through the depictions of mental illness in the arts.
Contact Katie Straub at kcstraub “at” stanford.edu.