Next to Normal flatly rejects the concept of better living through chemistry. That unique stance may the reason this dysfunctional-family rock musical, with a score by Tom Kitt and libretto by Brian Yorkey, claimed the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In our Prozac Nation age, that worldview is surely iconoclastic.
Personally, I’ve found it fairly off-putting since I first encountered this show in its initial New York production 11 years ago. There is no doubt that certain antidepressants and anxiety medications are overprescribed, and no medicine on the market offers a one-shot cure for mental illness. But the skepticism with which the musical treats psychopharmacology approaches near-Scientology levels, often suggesting that the problems faced by Diana Goodman, the suicidally depressed protagonist, are caused as much by over-prescription as they are by the death of her son (and an underlying, previously undiagnosed personality disorder she’s had since childhood).
Your mileage may vary
At times, the show fetishizes the unpredictable thrill of being unmedicated and derides the placidity of mood stabilization. In “I Miss the Mountains,” Diana sings of the boringly contented suburban life she can only achieve through an all-curing cocktail: “Everything is balanced here / And on an even keel. / Everything is perfect. / Nothing’s real.” She only starts living again, damn the risks, when she flushes her Zoloft down the toilet. “We have the happiest septic tank on the block,” she glibly tells her worried husband after unsettling issues predictably arise.
I can’t be the only person who finds this philosophy naive at best and dangerous at worst. And the production currently on stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT) did little to assuage my opinion of the show and its message. Next to Normal seems like the kind of musical for which the term “your mileage may vary” was coined: your reaction to it will likely intersect with your experience of mental illness, your relationship to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and your feelings toward a conception of living “authentically.”
Now that I’ve gotten my reservations about the piece out of the way, allow me to descend my soapbox and say that BRT’s staging contains some worthwhile elements. They are mostly of the design variety: Roman Tatarowicz’s multilevel lightbox set smartly suggests all the material’s disparate elements, from domestic drama to rock concert to teenage love story. Ryan O’Gara’s lighting is pulsing and evocative. Brett Pearson mercifully keeps the decibels at a comfortable level with his sound design, and the six-piece band, nestled behind the stage, give Kitt’s score their all.
Yet the production itself, under the direction of BRT artistic director Keith Baker, rarely mines the material for any sense of depth. The show centers on a family that has been roiling for decades, with unspoken resentments embedded beneath every banal line of dialogue. Here, the group of assembled actors seem like they all met each other for the first time a few moments before heading onstage. Backstory is largely banished.
Donna Vivino brings a blue-chip voice to Diana Goodman, but throughout the show, she seems too sturdy and grounded to suggest a woman perpetually on the precipice of a breakdown. On the contrary, she projects a vibrancy that might be more appropriate in Mamma Mia! And although Danny Vaccaro sings well and manages a few moving moments as her husband Dan, he fails to suggest the character’s long-suffering anxieties over his wife’s constantly deteriorating condition.
Laura Giknis plays their high-school-aged daughter Natalie, though she clearly hasn’t been a teenager in quite some time. (She and Vivino could practically pass for sisters.) Perhaps because of that, she overcompensates with a series of angsty troubled-teen clichés. On opening night, her singing was regularly sharp and unpleasant—in contrast to Liam Snead, as the manifestation of Diana’s long-dead son, who regularly sang under pitch and out of sync with the band.
The most compelling performance comes from Scott Greer, who manages to wrest the series of psychiatrists who treat Diana from the world of menace and malpractice that Yorkey embeds in his libretto. Of course, psychiatrists are evil here. And their names are Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, which should tell you the level of nuance on which this musical operates.
Next to Normal remains a popular property on the regional theater circuit, but whenever I see it, I can’t shake the sour taste it leaves in my mouth. The show purports to honor the peaks and valleys of life—without trauma and pain, it seems to ask, how would you even know you exist? And there is no doubt that people cannot shield themselves from every harm that comes their way. Yet the outright rejection of therapeutic interventions that permeates this project continues to strike me as something that shouldn’t be celebrated.
What, When, Where
Next to Normal. By Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Directed by Keith Baker. Through November 24, 2019, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. (215) 785-0100 or brtstage.org.
Bristol Riverside Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue, and accessible seating is available for all performances. Patrons can call the box office with any seating questions.