Meadow Brook rocks and shocks in polemical Michigan premiere
By Carolyn Hayes
With a rollicking sound (music by Tom Kitt) and a plot centered on the foe and friend that is one woman’s mental illness (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey), “Next to Normal” is by no means a conventional musical. For the Michigan premiere at Meadow Brook Theatre, directed by Travis W. Walter, the viewer is rewarded for obliging the production’s audacious and startling choices, which not only do emotional justice to an astonishing, illuminating, Pulitzer Prize–winning text, but also proves to be musically splendid.
The play revolves around the lives of Diana (Stephanie Wahl) and her family members: loyal, no-nonsense, determined husband Dan (George Andrew Wolff); 16-year-old daughter Natalie (Jessica Naimy), whose teenaged fury can be measured in decibels; and the steady, dependable presence that is 18-year-old Gabe (Ryan Naimy). By all appearances they are a reasonably functional American family, but the show almost immediately makes clear there is something wrong with this picture, beyond Dad’s disproportionate responsibility and Natalie’s adolescent avoidance tactics.
The root of the problem is Diana’s debilitating, indefinable mental illness and its attendant delusions, which have been pharmacologically regulated – poorly, and with unbearable side effects – for nearly two decades. Consequently, her perspective is warped and easily detaches from real life, which is made incredibly apparent to the viewer through her distorted, unpredictable, deadened, upsetting lens.
This plunge into an unreliable mind is achieved by taking both addled departures from and crash-landing returns to reality, all of which unfold on a modern-architecture stunner of a set designed by Jeremy Barnett. The static wonder of lines, arcs and skewed surfaces lends itself to gorgeous stage pictures, serving as rooms in the family home, various school backdrops, doctors’ offices, and hospital locales, often concurrently. To operate on this many levels necessitates a clear road map and crisp transitions, which here fall victim to the cavalcade of stimuli, including Reid G. Johnson’s whirl of arbitrary shifting lights that grow into massive externalizations of inner turmoil, and costumes by Liz Moore that point to a color theme without making its internal logic clear. Hands down, the jumps in and out of perspective are best dispensed by Eric Gutman in a supporting role, playing to wild extremes as a medical professional turned occasional rock colossus.
Speaking of rock, most of the show is set to a pervasive contemporary score, a downright triumph for music director Michael Rice. These are tricky, angry, driving phrases, and the six actors and impeccable band (also led by Rice) know every note backward and upside-down. The insistent material is given an appropriate concert feel by the use of body microphones – sound designer Mike Duncan earns kudos for making the lyrics crisply audible over the instrumentals, although the more delicate elements of the score, including the beautiful frenetic strings, do lose their way in the ringing swell of sound.
Yet at the same time, the music has no choice but to push limits to suit the candid, confessional verses befitting people at the edge of cracking. In a memorable number, Wahl escapes Diana’s dreamy daze, seizing her own narrative and chucking the mountain of pills that have so plagued her, an act equally celebratory and foreboding. In the ensuing progression, regression, and search for alternative treatments, Ryan Naimy executes a chilling pivot leading down an intriguing path of resentment and vengeance, as Gabe’s role in the family dynamic is increasingly threatened.
These plaintive conveyances of personal feeling and absent connections are straightforward and delivered dependably; however, the most staggering, stunning moments of the production come when the characters’ realities and needs collide, resulting in devastating interactions as they push the shards of their broken selves into each other.
Here, partners Wahl and Wolff do tremendous, heart-wrenching work trying to salvage a marriage out of something that has evolved into a promise being seen through, as Dan endeavors to protect Diana – and, by extension, himself – from the most harrowing corners of her psyche.
In a story fraught with clear parallels to the main plot, an adoring, too-good-to-be-true young man (Jason Cabral) introduces Natalie to self-medication, then cycles through complex guilt and helplessness when she uses it to rebel with an alarming lack of restraint. But Jessica Naimy doesn’t dissolve into cliche, instead resurging in a late scene with Wahl, sparking a revelatory connection grounded in growing up and moving forward.
If this sounds like an outrageously bold show, that’s because it is; most importantly, the Meadow Brook production has no interest in apologizing for its bold concept and content. The theater does caution viewers about the play’s sprinkling of adult language and content, although to be candid, it’s the overzealous use of strobe effects that warrants more prominent warnings.
Clearly, Walter and company refuse to treat their “Next to Normal” with kid gloves, and their approach is absolutely correct for this unremitting, emotionally mangling text and score. This production plants itself far afield and largely justifies its extreme choices, demonstrating the ravaging beauty of the loud, the unconventional, the unfair, and the painfully irreparable.