SpeakEasy Stage has just extended its highly successful run of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical about mental illness called NEXT TO NORMAL (through April 15th). Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s pop rock musical about bipolar disease has humor in abundance, thank heaven. If it didn’t, the relentless onslaught of failed treatment modes and family heartache would be intolerable.
What’s truly remarkable about NEXT TO NORMAL is the deep anguish (experienced by the characters) which reaches across the proscenium, right into our stomachs. The poor mother (flawlessly sung by Kerry A. Dowling) lurches from pillar to post to find help for her endless despair – and we can feel it. The overwhelmed father (Christopher Chew) and daughter (Sarah Drake) can’t cope with mother’s swing from deep depression to impulsive mania – and our hearts go out to them, even break for them, their portrayals are so beautifully drawn. Were it not for the cheeky, irreverent songs (like “A Few of my Favorite Pills” and “My Psychopharmacologist and I”) and offbeat secondary characters, NEXT TO NORMAL would be too painful to enjoy.
In Britain they call shrinks “trick cyclists” because that’s what the French word for psychiatrist (pronounced puh-sick-ee-a-trick) sounds like. It connotes even more skullduggery than our term “shrink” does. It seems quite apt in NEXT TO NORMAL since the two doctors, magnificently portrayed by Chris Caron, each have an abundance of tricks up their sleeve. Each’s introduction scene is simply delicious. The cures are definitely not, returning the tone of the piece to sorrow and suffering.
Everyone, from Michael Tacconi’s needy grown-up baby to Michael Levesque’s quirky, “perfect” boyfriend, adds immeasurably to director Paul Daigneault and music director Nicholas James Connell’s compelling, disturbing portrait of an American family. Only the artificially “happy” ending seemed to me to be out of place. (Mother sets herself “free” by going to live with her parents, which is presumably where her illness started in the first place! How can this be a good choice? But that’s just my opinion, for what it’s worth.)