By Minh-Anh Day
As an audience member, I’m very easy to please. All I ask of a show is that it provide me with some number of moments that are so transcendently wonderful that it takes my body a second to remember how to cry or laugh or breathe. This seems like a reasonable standard. By that metric, “Next to Normal,” running in Pigott Theater March 8-10 in a stunning production directed by Nathan Jae-Sun Large ’18, succeeds in spades.
“Next to Normal,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, centers around a suburban family: Diana and Dan, along with their children Natalie and Gabe, all grappling with mental illness in their own ways. Diana, the focus of the show, struggles with her bipolar disorder and delusions, going through multiple doctors and treatment methods in search of stability. Her husband Dan copes with his own depression and worries about Diana, whose illness seems to be worsening, while their daughter, Natalie, deals with her isolation from her parents and a budding romance with Henry, a fellow musician. If you don’t know the show, don’t look up any other plot summaries before you see it; spoilers are everywhere.
Hopefully it’s obvious at this point: this is not the kind of musical that involves jazz hands. It is not light or easy material. Fortunately, this cast has risen to the challenge. Dan, as played by Miles Petrie ’19, is simultaneously deeply tired and forever hopeful, serving as a sharp contrast to the mercurial Diana, played by Ellen Woods ’18. Woods provides Diana with an explosive energy that makes her endlessly compelling, even if she rarely lands Diana’s bitter humor.
Meanwhile, Natalie (Heather Connelly ’18) radiates anxiety near-constantly, countering the palpable relaxation of Henry (Austin Zambito-Valente ’20). If the show was meant as a living argument for the thesis that “opposites attract,” this production would certainly bear that out. Andrew Han Savage ’18 delivers a contained performance as Gabe; he lands each moment effectively, but at no point is he dangerous, unpredictable or out of control. Rounding out the cast are the doctors, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, both played by Eve La Puma ’20. The transposition of a traditionally male role is unobtrusively done, and La Puma’s portrayals are funny and tragic in equal measure, though somewhat low energy throughout.
The staging is mostly strong and sometimes utterly brilliant. One of the most heartbreaking and most hopeful aspects of “Next to Normal” is the parallelism between Dan’s relationship with Diana and Henry’s relationship with Natalie. Large’s staging of “Why Stay?”/“A Promise” draws out the exultant sadness of the piece without descending into sentimentality. The parallel movements he coordinates also break the actors of their tendency to overuse eye contact.
In general, this cast and this production are strongest in moments that are stylized and, therefore, choreographed. “Just Another Day” and “Maybe” are mostly strong but marred by unnecessary movement: actors shifting furniture and plates, clutching at clothing, fussing over nothing. “Who’s Crazy”/“My Psychopharmacologist and I”, “Make Up Your Mind”/“Catch Me I’m Falling” and the gorgeous finale of “Light” — during these numbers, the actors are fully invested in everything they’re doing. Their synchronized movements coupled with the harmony of their voices create a powerful, unified experience.
The lighting for the finale is heart-stopping: the culmination of a design concept (executed by Stephen Hitchcock ’18) that is constantly engaging, if somewhat inconsistent. The LED light wall uses simple, static patterns that flow into each other between scenes, enlivening transitions that might otherwise drag. The more conventional aspects of the lighting design are quieter and subtler, but just as effective in defining the emotional space of the show.
Lastly, and most enigmatically, there are six handheld lamps, all looking like a bare incandescent bulb on a short length of pipe, that are passed between the actors and the stage throughout the show, as props and set as much as lighting elements. They provide a striking visual for many moments across the story, as characters dance with them, stare at them, and most importantly, offer them to each other.
Any piece worth watching is too complex to be pinned down to a single question, but here is the one I was turning over in my head as I left. When we’re all holding our own personal darkness, what does it mean to offer someone your light? Are you left darker for it?
Contact Minh-Anh Day at mday19 ‘at’ stanford.edu.