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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Next to Normal

Or: Climb Every Mountain

When one thinks of the great musicals, the mind is drawn to visions of diva’s in ten figure costumes, intricate sets rising out of the floorboards or descending from the flies, scantily clad persons in kick lines, all in celebration of grand romance or big times in the big city, or the magic of self discovery (for good or ill). But these are the trappings and the suits of the art: a musical is only a story so heartfelt it can only told through song. Such a story is Next To Normal. Its not epic in scope: a family dealing with problems of the mind and the heart, but it can hold you in its hand and shake you to your bones.

Written and scored by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the story follows the travails of Diana Goodman (Laura Winters), a wife and mother possessed by Bipolar disorder. She has a good hearted husband (Ben Barker), “here for the show, every high every low” but uncertain of how best to serve his beloved, a precocious and nervy daughter (Jessie Klueter) put through a grinder of senior year, a boyfriend (Aaron Simon Gross) and the possibility she might go crazy too, and a high spirited but beloved son (Kyle Sherman) who understands his mother best but may not always give the soundest advice. With each member of the family fighting to maintain the semblance of a structured life Diana finds herself more and more dissatisfied with her pill ordered consciousness and begins to push the boundaries of her sickness on her own, trying to find away out, and, inadvertently, shaking the family to its core.

Yorkey’s book and lyrics might not be the most inventive or lyrical out there, but he has ably incorporated and artfully illustrated suffering and treatment (and the suffering of the treatment, not something to be forgotten) of Diana’s disease. As she describes in “I miss the mountains” we scale beside her completely up to the clear aired peaks of lucidity and pitch black crevasses of despair so insidious it looks like love, and never once are we pushed away by a vague metaphor or a washy sentiment. It also keeps us guessing by stitching its heroines fantasies on stage. We are treated to so many visions that fact and phantom blend together, and we are just as unsure as she is what we are seeing is real.

But the core of the story is not the trials of one woman against the tide of madness but a families coping with the uncopable, in whatever form that make take. Winters, Barker and Klueter knit themselves together into a fine assemblage of clashing personalities rarely ever hearing each other but when they do finally connect, their concern radiates off your face. With a voice both sweet like drizzled honey and demanding as a broadsword, Winters juggles our heroines quirks ably, but continually holds forth the gleaming shards of the woman she once was: strong, smart, whole hearted. Klueter’s own pipes are more floral, gaudy hydrangeas in her rage, throned roses in her disappointment, trembling daisies in her hope, well complimented by the surprisingly mellow and glowing toned Simon Gross, gentle in his weeding as in his watering. Barker pulls off a difficult feat of changing his voice to match his character arc. We first meet Dan, full of love but with no clue of how to interact with wife or children, his voice is rich, bright and cheerful but rather generic, like a an easygoing 70’s sit com father. Let trouble wear at him, and both character and voice wear away the patent shine to something deep with grief, steely with resolve yet still rubbery with emotion. His confrontation with Winters over a buried trauma, the root of her ever present curse, should be bottled and sold as catharsis, guaranteed to crack the stoniest heart.

When one thinks of great musicals, the mind is drawn towards visions of great ideals: eternal love, sudden discovered fortunes, happily ever afters. Next to Normal offers more humble pie: like the thousand of families living today and the uncounted millions heaped together in times gone by, branded with mental illness (or drink, or poverty, or doubt or what you will) there are no happy endings. The suffering we see Diana and her family weather are just the worst bouts of a lifetime of storms. But the fortitude and the hope this family lights within itself kindles warmth in us, as only a song well sung can.

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