This award-winning 2008 musical by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) began its life as a 10-minute rock musical, Feeling Electric, that was inspired by a Dateline NBC story about electroconvulsive therapy. (One of the most moving parts of the show remains the dramatization through music and dance of how it feels to experience ECT.) Despite all the Drama Desk Awards, Tonys, and the Pulitzer, the show has not transcended its roots as a kinda cool, kinda experimental rock musical based on a kinda weird premise: getting in the head of someone struggling with bipolar disorder who eventually receives ECT.
If you are a person fascinated with psychology or with unconventional storytelling, this is your show. Yorkey’s script and lyrics brilliantly portray the protagonist’s mental state. Kitt’s rock score is also a revelation. But the very qualities that make Next to Normal outstanding also make it a challenge for those who go to the theater to be reassured that no matter how painful and chaotic the world gets, people heal, things turn out okay, and a new order of some kind prevails in the end. This is not that kind of show. There is no happy ending. There is no ending at all, actually, but to say more would be to say too much.
The Writers Theatre revival, directed by New York-based David Cromer (returning to one of the theaters where he cut his teeth in his youth), is flawless. The casting is, to an actor, on point. Keely Vasquez, in particular, is terrific as the show’s troubled protagonist; she knows just how to win our sympathy without inspiring pity. v