Due to its unusual choice of subject matter, Next to Normal is a very brave show. Sure, there have been stage and screen works galore about insanity and other mental disorders. Shakespeare dealt with related themes, such as depression, notably in Hamlet (although there is, as the Melancholy Dane remarks, “A method to [his] madness”). Just about every Bond villain has been certifiable, John Malkovich perfected the onscreen lunatic and some movies have made light of psychological disorders, from 1966’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment to 1970’s Where’s Poppa?, which found much humor in dementia.
On the other hand, the hard-hitting 1948 drama The Snake Pit was Oscar-nommed. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Kirk Douglas, premiered on Broadway in 1963. The 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel swept the Academy Awards’ major categories, scoring five, including for Best Picture, while Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher won acting honors. Peter Weiss’ stirring 1963 Marat/Sade, about the inmates of Charenton asylum and the French Revolution, likewise made a successful leap from stage to screen in 1967. More recently, the 2011 movie A Dangerous Method, starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, among other things dramatized the cure of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). And so on.
But Next to Normal is, as they say, a horse of another color. A musical about mental illness? While there may be operas with related themes, this Broadway production, which debuted in 2008 Off-Broadway, with show tunes about and by the mentally ill, seems rather unique to me. Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey displayed great courage - as well as talent - in bringing their vision of the psychologically troubled to the stage. And, this reviewer is pleased, so do the cast and crew currently mounting Normal at the Pico Playhouse.
Normal opens with members of the Goodman family - Diana (Michelle Lane) and Dan (Nick Sarando) and their children, Natalie (Isa Briones) and Gabe (Harrison Meloeny) - lyrically lamenting their lot in life. Okay, I thought, this is going to be a play about the alienation of everyday middle class life, and how the consumer society drives people mad. But boy, was I ever wrong (that storyline was, shall we say, in my own mind).
Rather, at some point in Act I, Normal pivots more sharply and imaginatively than Donald “Sleep Deprived” Trump on the stump. A plot point emerges that I didn’t see coming at all, and this inventive surprise is much to the credit of the bookwriter, Yorkey.
Rather than merely being a lamentation on the nine-to-five grind, Normal becomes an elegy to loss and the grief and guilt that can result from it. The musical comments upon, explores and boldly critiques the bipolar state and associated mood disorders, such as the deep void and vortex of depression, and their “cures,” including psychopharmacology and far more extreme treatments dramatized onstage that I won’t reveal here. The obviously named Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine (is the latter a sly Three Stooges reference? See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53KcqITIPlA and you be the judge), both played by Randal Miles, may be well meaning but are really stumbling (if not bumbling) around in the dark seeking solutions to Diana’s woes.
She is probably meant to be the protagonist and is frequently called “Di” - which, of course, is suggestive of “Die,” in this play where suicide may just be a razorblade away. Normal also shows how mental illness can affect not only the afflicted one, but those around him/her. The ensemble is well-directed by musical veteran Thomas James O’Leary, who portrayed the title character in The Phantom of the Opera for three years on Broadway. Particular affecting is the fact that Natalie, the daughter of Diana (portrayed by the Caucasian Lane) is depicted by the teenaged Isa Briones, a Filipina. I don’t know if this was intentional or just another generous example of nontraditional casting, but I felt that having a white mother and Asian daughter enhanced the sense of disconnect and estrangement between the two that is an essential part of this play. In any case, Ms. Briones, a high school senior who comes from a show biz family, makes her auspicious professional debut in Normal, with her moving acting and expressive singing. Bravo!
Natalie’s boyfriend Henry is boyishly, earnestly played by Blaine Miller. Males are often depicted as predatory pigs who think with their other heads, but both Henry and Dan are sympathetically drawn as caring, compassionate human beings. However, either Sarando is too emotionally flat and inexpressive or he’s a far better actor than I am giving him credit for, because this inability to emote is the core of his character. Be that as it may, I did feel that his fate was undeserved and unfair - but see and decide for yourself.
The rock songs are performed by a four or five piece live band and the singing often hits emotional high notes, as well as the depths. One of the better songs is “Superboy and the Invisible Girl”, belted out by Natalie, Diana and Gabe. The show’s lyrics can be clever and witty, even Cole Porter worthy, such as when Diana plaintively sings: “I’m no sociopath, I’m no Sylvia Plath!” Holy Bell Jar, Yorkey! First time I ever heard a reference to this poet and novelist in a musical.
Jeff Cason’s set is purely utilitarian and functional - there’s nothing aesthetic about it at all, but it serves the show’s purposes well. (This isn’t always true of the Pico Playhouse - I’ve seen some intricate, realistically-wrought sets there in previous productions.)
Perhaps, above all, this two-act musical raises the question: “What is normal?” The second act songs “Maybe (Next to Normal)”, a duet between Diana and Natalie, which is followed by “Hey #3/Perfect for You (Reprise)”, with the young lovers Henry and Natalie serenading one another, are among the musical’s best numbers and also express this theme, questioning: What is normalcy?
Consider this: American consumers seeking to be entertained and perhaps to understand their world pay excessive fees for cable TV, yet - except on premium channels - they are still barraged (and berated by - hey! Samuel Jackson!!! Quit screaming at us to buy the credit cards you shill for!!!) by endless commercials. Unwelcome, unsolicited, hostile messages we are coerced to pay for (along with all those channels we subsidize but never watch), often ballyhooing products pertaining to the most distasteful bodily functions or frequently with loud screeching automobiles designed to annoyingly attract our attention, inner reptilian self - and, but of course, our wallets.
As we have seen, there is a long tradition of plays and movies about mental illness, insanity, schizophrenia, etc. If one wants to find out what’s really happening in the world today, turn on the tube - but instead of real news, what passes for today’s TV media is nonstop full of the lunacy of reportage about a pathological liar running against a megalomaniacal maniac for the presidency, endless hours upon hours devoted to them, while Green Party sane candidate, Jill Stein, can’t even receive a minute of coverage (sounds like the plot for a great Stanley Kubrick flick written by Terry Southern).
And consider this: Last season, Triage Productions presented Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, full of the whack jobs who assassinated - or tried to kill - U.S. presidents. But as Next to Normal suggests, normalcy can be in the eye of the beholder. Was Samuel Byck, who tried to hijack a jet and ram it into the White House in order to assassinate Tricky Dick in 1974, nuts? Some may argue he was perfectly sane to want to stop a mass murderer before he could slaughter more Vietnamese, Chileans, et al - and who eventually had to leave office when his massive crimes against humanity caught up with him.
One of my personal favorite dramatizations of mental illness is the 1993 film Benny & Joon with Johnny Depp playing a Buster Keaton-imitating character in this tale that dared posit the notion that true love could cure mental illness. (Hey, that can’t be an idea crazier than lobotomies!) Does Normal’s denouement suggest the same?
Next to Normal is for more adventurous theatergoers willing to tackle a disturbing yet important subject, as well as for those who enjoy rock music performed by a live band, great acting, singing and a story some may find to be inspirational.
Triage Productions’ Next to Normal runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. until Sept. 25 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., CA 90064. Information: (310)204-4440; http://n2musicalla.com. Post-show talkbacks with psychiatrists are scheduled after the Sept. 4 & 18 matinees.
Reviewer Ed Rampell is the solo author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of three movie/TV histories about the screen image of Pacific Islanders, including The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.