Mental illness, drug abuse and marital woes are unlikely subjects for a successful Broadway musical. But not if its Next to Normal, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, particularly in the highly competent hands of Theatre in the Parks cast and creative team. This contemplative piece may not be everyones idea of entertainment, but those who go should be deeply moved and greatly rewarded.
The story focuses on Diana, whose bipolar condition has severely affected her relationship with husband Dan, daughter Natalie and son Gabe. Dianas doctor constantly adjusts her medications, doing little to quell her problems. After one frightening episode witnessed by Natalies new boyfriend Henry, Diana tries another doctor whose use of hypnotism and shock therapy leads Diana to face her demons and make life-changing decisions.
Although designated a rock musical, Brian Yorkeys lyrics and Tom Kitts score include riffs on country, pop ballad and traditional Broadway. The piece is mostly through-sung, each number melding into the next with quirky, catchy hooks. The clever, subtle lyrics add richness to character and plot.
Jessika Brust leads the impressive cast, her strong voice and finely shaded acting making Diana an extremely vulnerable and sympathetic character. Matching her is Kelsey Walstons Natalie, giving the daughter an outward cynicism that covers a fragile soul inside.
Kenneth Griggs nicely reveals Dans coping through a chipper, upbeat surface hiding a deep hurt beneath. Dalton Hood makes Henrys unswerving love for Natalie engaging, while Kevin Ferguson does what he can with the rather thankless roles of Dianas doctors. Aaron Miller is especially appealing as Gabe, his sweet, soaring voice adding poignancy to Gabes pleas for recognition from his mother.
Director Cody Cunninghams tight staging takes full advantage of the stairs, railings and platforms of Stephen J. Larsons utilitarian set, keeping the often somber events from becoming static. Cunningham allows the piece to grip the audience without undue manipulation.
Nancy Whelan leads her six-piece orchestra with great energy and panache, keenly supportive in quiet, lyrical moments. However, even by Sundays performance, the balance between miked singers and amplified players was off, the all-out rock sections obscuring important lyrics.
Nevertheless, the production sets a new standard at Theatre in the Park, its emotional impact evidenced by the thoughtfully provided tissues at the exit.