It's rare for a musical to win a Pulitzer Prize — from 1932 (Of Thee I Sing) through 1996 (Rent), only seven received the coveted award. It's difficult for a musical to combine the sociological heft and deft artistic execution necessary to earn such a high accolade. So it was no small feat when Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal joined that distinguished list in 2010.
Now in its regional premiere at Boiler Room Theatre, Next to Normal is nothing if not ambitious — a full-length excursion into the severe emotional and behavioral problems of a modern-day wife and mother, and the toll her illness exacts on her helpless family. It's Eugene O'Neill meets Stephen Sondheim, in a piece with operatic leanings carried out in the hybrid of Broadway and pop music that characterizes modern theatrical composers such as the late Jonathan Larson or Jason Robert Brown.
Playwright Yorkey's script has a stream-of-consciousness feel that blurs the line between lyrics and conventional dialogue. The subject matter includes manic depression, delusion, denial, grief, pill-popping, electroconvulsive therapy and the resounding dysfunction that comes with it all. Suffice to say there's never a dull moment in the Goodman household.
Megan Murphy Chambers gives an epic performance as Diana, the housewife struggling to maintain "normal" homemaker status despite her longstanding bipolar disorder. Early in the show, she sings, "So my son's a little shit / my husband's boring," and we know we're in rare theatrical territory.
Husband Dan (Mike Baum) is "living on a latte and a prayer," as he struggles to hold his family together while consulting with a therapist, Dr. Madden (Ben van Diepen). Teenage daughter Natalie (Paige Brouillette) is understandably a bit of a mess, though the presence of a new young man in her life, Henry (Jordan Ravellette), provides some support. Kevin Mead plays son Gabe, but to say much more about the character would be a potential spoiler.
Yorkey and tunesmith Kitt ignore traditional notions of structure, as 37 individual musical numbers collide and flow into one another. Many of the songs are written quite freely, which is a dramatic positive, though the closest we ever get to a hummable melody is Gabe's "I'm Alive." Director/musical director Jamey Green has assembled a six-piece combo (including guitarist Dale Herr, cellist Deidre Emerson and violinist Charis Mackrell) that does the challenging score justice.
The many notable numbers include "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I," with its litany of brand-name drugs (Adderall, Valium, Xanax, etc.); the jaunty "It's Gonna Be Good," in which husband Dan puts on a happy face in anticipation of better family days ahead; and "I Am the One," a song designed to tip us off to Gabe's pivotal role, while the truth of his situation remains veiled. Plus there's "Song of Forgetting," an interesting family exercise that plays out upon Diana's return home from the hospital; "Better Than Before," with Dr. Madden and the Goodman clan riffing on an optimism that seems unfounded in the light of harsh realities; and finally, the electroshock therapy song "Didn't I See This Movie?" — in which "sociopath" is rhymed with "Sylvia Plath," and Diana references Frances Farmer.
The show's script will ring true for anyone who's ever dealt with a loved one struggling with mental illness. Furthermore, we gain some insight into ECT, which remains controversial, especially given the memory loss it causes in patients. (That's a typical side effect, we're told, which proves to be equally curse and blessing.)
Interestingly, the recent Tennessee Women's Theater Project staging of Jennifer Fawcett's The Disappearance of Janey Jones also covered the gut-wrenching terrain of women in emotional and chemical distress. Next to Normal also recalls other standard-bearing examinations of families beaten down by mental illness and unattended grief, such as Judith Guest's Ordinary People.
Once upon a time, the subject matter of Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals might have been war or politics. Now it's the battleground of human emotion, the mysteries of the mind, and the overmedication of modern society. That seems about right, and BRT's production is intense and admirable, though a bit unsettling. If it's escapist entertainment you're after, look elsewhere — but for an engaging and thought-provoking night of musical theater, Next to Normal is highly recommended.
On May 30, Tennessee Repertory Theatre opened its weeklong Ingram New Works Festival, a series of staged play readings, kicking off the event at Nashville Public Television's Studio A with Nate Eppler's Larries. Eppler's absurdist rumination on relationships and domestic life was impressive, as was the fine, hardworking cast, directed by Rep artistic director Rene Copeland.
The evening also featured the announcement that in spring 2013, the Rep will produce David Auburn's The Columnist — a play developed in staged reading form as part of the 2010 Ingram New Works Festival and currently on Broadway starring John Lithgow. The Rep will be the first regional theater in the country to receive production rights.
"I'm proud to announce that due to our role in the development of the play, Tennessee Rep has received a special release to produce The Columnist, and we are the first theater outside of Broadway to be granted the rights for this incredible new work," Copeland said prior to the play reading.
The Columnist, based on the life and career of Washington, D.C., political writer Joseph Alsop, replaces Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still on the Rep's schedule, and will run April 20–May 4. Preview performances are April 18-19. (Time Stands Still recently received its local premiere by Actors Bridge Ensemble.)
Meanwhile, the Ingram New Works Festival concludes this weekend (June 7-9) at Nashville Children's Theatre with the reading of Ingram fellowship winner Steven Dietz's Rancho Mirage. Curtain is 7 p.m.
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