Look elsewhere for a light, feel-good musical—from electroshock therapy to suicide, “Next to Normal” certainly doesn’t shy away from heavy subject matter. This revival of Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Allen J. Macleod ’14, which ran at Farkas Hall through Sunday, did the off-Broadway original proud. The cast, through its excellent singing and acting, created a show that was a complex and emotionally charged portrait of madness rather than a caricature.
In “Normal,” all is not well with the Goodman family, whose aspirations for all-American normalcy are thwarted by the mother Diana’s (Amy K. Sparrow ’15) increasing mental instability. Haunted by visions of her dead son (Anise Molina ’14) and torn between her husband’s (Adam J. Conner ’14) pleas to seek psychiatric care and her own desire to escape the numbness that the medications bring, Diana descends into a downward spiral that drags her whole family with her. As her perfectionist daughter Natalie (Morgan E. Henry ’14) comes under the influence of her slacker boyfriend Henry (Justin S. Pereira ’13), the family’s hopes of maintaining a veneer of calm become increasingly unattainable.
Tackling the subject of madness means walking a fine line: the performance has to portray the drama and poignancy of the condition without coming off as goofy or exploitative. As Diana, Sparrow was more than up to the task—she dazzled in the lead role, capturing equally well Diana’s Valium-induced stupor and her head-first pitch into madness after going off her pills. When Diana’s condition grows so bad that she finally decides to undergo electroconvulsive therapy, Sparrow turned what could easily have been a bad parody of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” into a nuanced and affecting performance. She brilliantly expressed Diana’s fear that she might have inflicted irreparable damage upon herself. Sparrow’s portrayal in this scene was characterized by restraint—through the tone of her voice she communicated her character's anxiety while skillfully avoiding tipping into farce. Her commanding presence onstage grounded the play as her character’s psyche became more and more unraveled.
The rest of the cast is almost universally strong. As Diana’s psychiatrist, David A. Sheynberg ’16 effortlessly shuttled back and forth between reality and Diana’s crazed hallucinations of him. During his interplay with Sparrow in “My Psychopharmacologist and I.” Sheynberg played up the song’s dark, sardonic notes with a confident swagger and a glint in his eye. Pereira expertly managed his character’s turn from lazy stoner to responsible boyfriend when Natalie begins to come undone He projected true compassion when trying to help Natalie come to grips with her disintegrating family. The one small crack in this otherwise stellar production was Molina, who slithered and slunk around his living family members and stood uncomfortably close to them, as if he were trying to seduce them rather than haunt them. But he shapes up in the second act, during which he take on a more sinister tone and manner as the pressure of keeping the family together renders his father more and more vulnerable to his influence.
With more than 30 songs, “Next to Normal” is almost entirely music. Instead of the songs being broken up by chunks of action, they often directly follow each other and even interweave as the focus shifts from one character to another. It’s a tall order, but this cast handled it with the style and grace that is usually associated with a professional production. The singing balanced perfectly with the accompaniment under the music direction of Sam R. Moore ’15 and Melanie J. Rucinski ’15. Nor did the constant singing interfere with the actors’ ability to emote. In “You Don’t Know,” Diana rejects her husband’s claim that he understands what she’s going through. Sparrow begins the song with repressed fury, by degrees releasing it until her character is built up into a full-fledged, mania-fueled rage. And in “Song of Forgetting,” Henry, Sparrow, and Conner come together for a moving number that evokes by turns hopefulness, frustration, and despair.
The set was skeletal—the house was nothing but a stark white frame, suggesting the fragile framework of Diana’s sanity and her family’s stability. But lighting designer Joseph R. Seering ’13 shocked the muted set to life with explosions of pink, red, and blue in Diana’s moments of true mania. The technique was particularly effective in delineating the difference between reality and Diana’s hallucinations, which may otherwise have been unclear.
Despite the darkness of most of the play, “Next to Normal” ends on an optimistic note, with the Goodmans realizing that while their problems may never completely be solved, they can, at least, be contented and attain a modicum of normalcy. Similarly, the cast of “Next to Normal,” was about as close to professional as you could ask a college production to be. The ups far outweighed the downs, and the cast ultimately succeeded in ridding the play of any potential melodrama. Instead the audience was given a frank and affecting portrait of madness and its devastating effects on families.
—Staff writer Erica X Eisen can be reached at email@example.com.