Musicals require us to believe their characters’ emotions are so fiercely heightened the only way they can effectively express them is through breaking into song, though often those numbers are limited to zippy feelings like beautiful mornings and the desire to dance all night—especially at a theater like Drury Lane, known for standard fare. So it’s particularly notable that Next to Normal, a dark and thoroughly modern show that opened Off Broadway in 2008, is making its regional debut on Drury Lane’s suburban stage. So notable, in fact, the company sent out its first letter of warning to unsuspecting subscribers detailing the show’s dramatic tone. And while director William Osetek’s production is hardly that shocking (save for a few scandalized patrons heard muttering on the way out of the theater), it is a decidedly bold and engaging departure.
The Goodmans are the ideal vision of the all-American family—or at least, like so many families, they appear to be. Spoiler alert: Not so much. Mother Diana (Broadway vet Susie McMonagle) wrestles with debilitating mental illness, an affliction that leaves husband Dan (Rod Thomas) feeling lost and helpless and daughter Natalie (Callie Johnson) feeling overwhelmed and overshadowed by her brother Gabe (Josh Tolle). Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics include songs and scenes about pills, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations and heartbreaking therapy sessions, set to composer Tom Kitt's fitting pop-rock score.
The cast gives universally solid performances, with newcomer Tolle standing out especially for his clear and commanding voice. Dissonant chords and intricately layered vocal parts work overtime, mirroring the off-kilter tone of the action and folding in thoughtful parallels and a rising and falling sense of chaos. It’s occasionally unclear whether stray notes and clashing harmonies are intentional, but that could very well be the idea. Drury Lane’s appears to have been a risk worth taking. Normal taps a realistic nerve with honesty and hope.