Rockin’ “Next To Normal” At New Line Gives Depression A Lift

NTN_square1-M Who decided a musical with a heroine with bipolar disorder was a good idea? Brian Yorkey fashioned the book and lyrics and Tom Kitt provided the music for “Next To Normal” and it became an instant hit winning Tony’s for Best Musical Score, Orchestration and for lead, Alice Ripley. It also took several Outer Circle Awards for its off-Broadway run. Now New Line Theatre has brought an intimate and more accessible production to their stage and everything about it is outstanding.

Mary Beth Black, Jeffrey M. Wright and Kimi Short celebrate an uneasy birthday in New Line's "Next To Normal." Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Mary Beth Black, Jeffrey M. Wright and Kimi Short celebrate an uneasy birthday in New Line’s “Next To Normal.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Kimi Short is simply sensational in the difficult role of Diana. We see her struggle with her inner demons, obsessing about a lost child which, among other problems, has led to her depression. Her cagey acting and her strong singing voice makes this most unlikely leading lady someone we root for and sympathize with. Playing her loving and frustrated husband is the wonderful Jeffrey M. Wright. Transitioning from the young playboy in “High Fidelity” last year to this brooding, helpless middle aged man shows his remarkable range. Ryan Foizey once again stands out in the role of the son with a bit of a twist and Zachary Allen Farmer gets away from his usual roles of sidekicks and wacky best friends to portray two doctors with insight into Diana’s problems. Showing both the angst of diagnosing such a sensitive problem and the often cavalier attitude in treatment, he get a meatier role but also gets to play up his comedic skills during Diana’s fantasies.

Although Joseph McAnulty’s character of the daughters’ boyfriend bothered me at first, he transitioned into a highly likable character with a better head on his shoulders than first appeared. The real find of the evening is Mary Beth Black as the daughter, Natalie. An actual high school student playing her age, she shows remarkable dexterity in handling this very tricky role. She, like the rest of the cast, also displays a powerful singing voice in handling one of the most difficult scores in musical theatre today. It’s powerful and driving with duets, quartets and more that weave in and out of the story and present as difficult a task as the characters themselves. One number near the open of the show blends classic, jazz and even a touch of “The Sound Of Music” as we first delve into these complex characters.

Joseph McAnulty and Mary Beth Black share an intimate moment in "Next To Normal." Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Joseph McAnulty and Mary Beth Black share an intimate moment in “Next To Normal.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The Scott L. Schoonover set is remarkable as well with hundreds of generic brown pill bottles set in a shadow box-like backdrop that also includes skewed furniture sideways and upside down and even a red door hanging off kilter high over this dysfunctional family home. The Sean M. Savoie lighting design enhances the story as well while Amy Kelly’s costumes are right on the money.

Director Scott Miller, assisted by Mike Dowdy, has brought the powerful story to dramatic life focusing on the intimacy of the venue. This would be an ordinary “Ozzie and Harriet” family if it weren’t for the initial trigger that probably brought on Diana’s depression- thus affecting everyone in the family and those hovering close by. It’s an unbelievable topic for a musical but the powerful script and driving rock score make it highly accessible and even entertaining in the most bizarre sense of the word.

Zachary Allen Farmer drills Kimi Short in New Line's production of "Next To Normal." Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Zachary Allen Farmer drills Kimi Short in New Line’s production of “Next To Normal.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Just as with the recent opening of “The Book Of Mormon” at the Fox and the disclaimer about offending some sensitive people, “Next To Normal” should come with a disclaimer about anyone suffering with bipolar themselves or dealing with it with a family member. They might want to think twice about seeing the show. It might be therapeutic but it could be upsetting as well.

The packed house on opening night, however, leapt to their feet after the final strains of “Light” to show their appreciation for a talented cast and crew and a most brave production. (Also witnessed a full house the next night at Dramatic License- things are looking up for local theatre.) Plan now to get to the Washington University South Campus Theatre before March 23rd to enjoy this dynamic production of “Next To Normal.” Contact New Line at http://www.newlinetheatre.com or call Metrotix at 314-534-1111.

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