Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s musical must be the least-known major hit there is. The Broadway production ran for nearly two years, earning four Tony Awards. The book and score won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Yet when the Drury Lane Theatre version opened the other night, the conversation around me consisted of husbands asking their wives what they were about to see. That probably didn’t happen last spring, when Drury Lane put on Oliver—and it’s one reason why the folks at the palatial theater in Oakbrook should be commended for making a gutsy choice.
Another reason is the subject matter, which is none too jolly. Next to Normal is the tale of a middle-class American family in extremis. Living on a “latte and a prayer,” as someone puts it. The mom, Diana Goodman, was diagnosed as bipolar, depressive, and delusional 16 years prior to the events we see—probably at about the time she burned down the house, wrecked the car, and (inadvertently) killed the cat. Modern psychopharmocology has smoothed her out but utterly failed to cure her, while husband Dan is going crazy trying to maintain an even strain. Teenage daughter Natalie exhibits all the symptoms of PTSD as she prepares for a high school piano concert. And then there’s son Henry, who’s a very special problem unto himself.
Yes, Next to Normal is two and a half hours of psychodrama in the most literal sense. It’s also witty, wry, surprisingly tuneful, and utterly compelling. Though Kitt and Yorkey try to have it both ways in the end, putting an implausibly hopeful spin on a terrible mess, the bulk of their work expresses what might be called compassionate realism as it traces the devastating path of trauma through the Goodman clan. Then, too, you’ve just got to respect artists capable of devising a showstopper about electroconvulsive therapy.
Alice Ripley gave an unforgettably idiosyncratic performance as Diana on Broadway. Here, under William Osetek’s direction, Susie McMonagle tones things down to good effect: she’s so normal you can’t believe she’s so crazy. As Dan, Rod Thomas sang on the flat side at the performance I saw. But the rest of the small ensemble were sharp in the best possible ways.