In the director’s note for “Next to Normal,” Kier Zimmerman ’20 described the show as a portrayal of “the ugly of mental illness” — the pain it can cause and the suffering it can bring. Zimmerman insisted that the performance was eschewing the use of mental illness as an “empty buzzword” by Harvard organizations. The show, which played at Farkas Hall from Nov. 1 to 3, attempted to bring a voice to this “ugly,” lending a realism to this complex, powerfully-constructed performance.
“Next to Normal” is a 2008 musical written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt. The show explores the lives of the Goodman family as they navigate Diana Goodman (Sarah B. Rossman ’19), who has bipolar disorder, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. Delving heavily into questions of loss, dysfunction, and intimacy, this production of “Next to Normal” was produced as part of Rossman’s TDM senior thesis.
The strong cast was key to defining the production: The acting was remarkably realistic, feeling exposed and intimate. The rich vocals were matched with emotional weight. Rossman did an excellent job in her portrayal of Diana Goodman, capturing the audience’s attention with her intensity and ferocity. She gave Diana a depth of emotion that carried the entire show. Having said this, however, another stand-out easily included Sara Bobok ’19, who played Diana’s daughter Natalie Goodman. Bobok successfully showcased the profound anxiety that characterized Natalie. Natalie’s father, Dan Goodman, played by Jake A. Corvino ’19, showed a similar range, performing with rawness and authenticity. On the whole, the cast’s performance was incredibly compelling and marked by realism.
The music pit, composed of undergraduate students from Harvard, Berklee, and Boston University, was equally strong, especially due to an extraordinary string section. The septet skillfully coordinated with the vocals and maintained an impressive dynamic balance. They also successfully paid tribute to a complex and nuanced soundtrack, merging rock styles with more traditional harmonies quite seamlessly. The lighting was the silent hero of the show — it subtly created intermittent moments of otherworldliness through a harshness that helped to sustain the play’s unique atmosphere.
Despite the strength of the performance, it is worth noting that no singular narrative about mental illness is all-encompassing or ideal. The production explicitly acknowledged this difficulty, forcing the audience to ask question what it means to portray mentally ill characters and how we consume content on this topic. In the playbill, Rossman acknowledged that narratives about this topic are never without flaws and encouraged audience members to continue the conversations beyond the boundaries of the show. This commitment to continued conversation was another critical part of the production and what made it all the more significant.
“Next to Normal” was a storied look at the complexity and ugliness associated with mental illness and grief. It forced the audience to engage in the recreation of loss and pain, while simultaneously taking a critical lens to the way we talk about and cope with mental illness. The Goodman family’s struggle with mental illness and its impacts didn’t end with the closing number. Rather, the show’s central takeaway relies on the ways we continue to live with pain.The production is a powerful homage to endurance in an imperfect and painful world.
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