The Ordway has brought a powerful, substantial and beautiful new musical to its main stage with the Tony Award-winning “Next to Normal,” a play that plots out new territory for what musicals can talk about. In this case, the subject is living with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.
Amazingly, for all of the pain attached to the experience, it’s not painful to watch. The story balances chaos with normalcy (or something next to normal), such as daughter Natalie’s frantic coping mechanisms against a typical teenaged romance. Played with wondrous finesse and sensitivity by Meghann Fahy, Natalie won over our hearts so completely that I began to fear more for her outcome than her mother’s.
Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for the role of the mother, Diana, has a peculiar, throaty singing style that makes it hard to understand the lyrics, and my companion and I debated about her remarkable consistency at being ¼-step flat through an entire song (I Miss the Mountains). He thought it was not only intentional but brilliant, conveying her off-kilter reality, altered but not alleviated in any meaningful way by the satchel full of pills she dumped out during the song.
I cannot fault her acting, playing a mother aware of her own illness but powerless to maintain “normalcy,” even while performing perfunctory daily tasks (such as lining up dozens of sandwiches on the floor as her family headed out for the day). Paired with director Michael Grief’s firm grip on the need for realism, Ripley’s performance was, quite simply, totally and wonderfully believable – even her hallucinations. An delivering logical-sounding lines (“Most people who think they’re happy are actually just stupid”) without a hint of “craziness.”
Asa Somers as Diana’s husband, Dan, led us along his journey oh-so-gently, his creamy smooth voice coaxing every bit of sweet tenderness out of a part that crunched through whatever boundaries you may have put on what mental illness is or isn’t, and what ought to be done about treating those who are afflicted.
Curt Hansen as their son, Gabe, so effectively set up the dynamic among the other characters and his own that we did indeed feel the damaging weight of his presence, although his impish posturing got a little distracting. Preston Sadleir as Natalie’s friend, Henry, delivered a completely likeable, slightly more normal, pot-smoking teen – one with a really lovely voice.
In fact, the singing consistently showed extraordinary range, depth and nuance; as an ensemble, the blend was just glorious. Jeremy Kushnier as Diana’s doctors may have had the most spectacular voice of all, belting it out as the rockstar doc, then gently winning them over to his treatment plan.
It’s also not painful to listen to. The music and lyrics are intelligent, varied and thoughtful, effectively dramatizing her mania with the aggressive “It’s Going to Be Good,” but drawing us into their vulnerability with “You Don’t Know Who I Am.”
The show is staged brilliantly in stacked metal cubes that offered stark definition against glowing drops that seemed to penetrate each scene with raw color, an effect that added to the intensity, or softened the edges of it.
Additionally, the show effectively makes a point that is so fundamental and universal that it transcends whether or not you can relate to dealing with a mental illness: just ask for what you want. That’s it. It’s not that easy, so we don’t do it. In the case of this show’s story, ask her to leave, ask her to stay, ask her to let go of the past, as your daughter to give her mom another chance, ask your mom to see you for who you are, and so on. The characters’ inability to follow this simple path – and the ability of show’s writers to embody it – makes for a rich musical experience.
As difficult and unsolvable as the play’s dilemma is, it is still powered by hope and carries an uplifting message: next to normal is about as good as it may ever get, but that’s good enough. The show runs through May 22.