Music theater purists may not find Next To Normal (Mixed Blood Theatre, through Nov 11) to their liking. Production values are not high, the clunky bass drum stage at MBT does not lend itself to musicals and the sound system is, to put it charitably, cruddy. As to the actors, well, they exude talent and intensity, and they can certainly sing, but they lack the flash and polish you’ll automatically find at the Orpheum or Latté Da. If you demand perfection I would send you to the Ordway. Billy Elliott opens Tuesday. Bring a fat wallet.
Ah, but if you want raw power and passion, fire and fervor, spirit and brio, then MBT has the production for you. I’ll admit it took me a while to get past the lack of peerless musicianship but once hooked I was with this portrait of a family’s reaction to mental illness, this study of the disruptive (and redeeming) nature of grief, this love story, all the way. It’s wonderful.
Next To Normal (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, tells the story of “a mother” (none of the characters have real names), in the 16th year of debilitating mental illness. Depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disease – her illness had been given every name under the sun and she has tried every psychotropic drug there is. The play details the valiant efforts of her husband, son and daughter to come to terms with her untreatable disability. Beyond this, I’m not going to describe the plot; it contains a nifty series of surprises. See the play. The music is good, but the real draw is the multi-layered, sometimes exasperating, always interesting story.
And of course the performances. Aditi Kapil plays the difficult role of the mother with courage, intelligence and unflagging energy. Kapil never gives in to simple self-pity and she never wavers in her love for her family. It’s an arresting performance. Thomas W. Jones excels as the father, confused, willing to do any and everything to succor his wife. Regina Marie Williams is simultaneously lovable and frightening as the psychiatrist who “suggests” that the mother try ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy). Ricardo Vázquez as the son delivers a performance of quiet power. His deep love – almost – saves her. Tom Reed plays the boyfriend with towering soft-spoken charm.
A growing fan club, of which I am a founding member, will be pleased to find that the luminous Brittany Bradford has a substantial role in Next To Normal. As the daughter, Bradford is both effervescent and powerful, possessed of an impossibly expressive face. She gives the play real emotional substance. I defy you to take your eyes off her.
Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler has directed with energy and flair. This Next To Normal moves fast.
I hate to end on a mercantile note, but it’s worth mentioning that Mixed Blood is very reasonably priced. Indeed, they are in the second year of their “radical hospitality” program: pay-what-can-tickets are available at every performance. Contact the theater for details.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.