Next to Normal
16 June 2011: Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio
We were fortunate enough to have my oldest son, Mikee, up to visit with us last week. He is a huge fan of the theatre and all that goes with that world. And his favorite musical not so coincidentally was playing at the Palace Theatre the same week – Next to Normal.
Tracy and I had never seen the production and didn't know what to expect beyond it being a musical dealing with the very serious issue if mental illness. I think it's safe to say we were both blown away.
The show traces the emotional journey of a family trying to deal with a wife and mother who suffers from bipolar disorder (Diana, played by Kent State University grad Alice Ripley). Of the characters, my favorites were the husband/father (Dan) and the daughter (Natalie). The husband because I could relate to him – not because my wife or our family has been touched by this sickness, but because the struggle he endured trying to be that rock and maintain some kind of normal family structure is something with which I could identify.
The daughter was a heartbreaking character, treading delicately between scared girl and complete bitch. This balance was never more exposed than when you realized just how scared Natalie is – selfishly and honestly – at the realization that she could turn out just like her mom.
Among the various “Broadway Buzz” events Playhouse Square offers is Thursday night post-show chats with the cast. Immediately following the performance, we made our way down to the main floor for the dialog with the Emma Hunton (“Natalie”), Caitlin Kinnunen (understudy for “Natalie”), Pearl Sun (standby for “Diana”), Preston Sadleir (“Henry”), Bryan Perri (Musical Director), and Rachel Zack (Stage Manager). It was an interesting half-hour Q&A that theatre major Mikee ate up.
Next to Normal is not "feel good" theatre, having more in common with Spring Awakening and Rent than Mamma Mia! or Chicago. Not every Broadway musical is or needs to be a Mel Brooks or Disney adaptation. There is a place for this kind of serious and deeply sensitive art, and when done right it can hit every emotionally raw nerve while still being entertaining and satisfying.