When you think “musical,” you’re probably thinking about something uplifting, especially when we’re talking about the Cape Rep Theatre, where shows like Avenue Q and Spamalot have been recent musical successes.
Next to Normal? Not so much.
The action opens as wife Diana (Nikki Van Cassele) prepares her family—husband Dan (Matt Ferrell), daughter Natalie (Chesley Jo Ristaino), and son (Matthew Corr)—for a seemingly ordinary day. It’s only when Diana, giggling, starts making the family’s sandwiches on the floor that the audience gets the idea that All Is Not As It Seems.
And that was one of the play’s lighter moments.
Diana has a long history of mental problems, triggered by a trauma that occurred 16 years ago. When her condition worsens despite her pharmacopeia of Mother’s Little Helpers, her new psychotherapist, Dr. Madden (Marty Brent), suggests ECT.
Meanwhile, the couple’s “invisible” daughter Natalie, worn out by her mother’s thoughtless neglect, slips into her own depression despite the rather adorable efforts of her new boyfriend Henry (Christopher Sheehan) to engage her in love and life.
Tom Kitt’s music—winner of the 2009 Tony for best score—and Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are an impressive collaboration, as the Pulitzer Board acknowledged in its remarks that the show “expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.” And the songs are extremely clever, there’s no getting away from that—but, honestly, there was a sense that this might have made an absolutely terrific 90-minute musical; by the time the second act came around, things were starting to feel a little redundant and one found oneself thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I got it.” Two hours and twenty minutes is too much time for this particular story to be told.
None of that, of course, is the fault of Cape Rep, and the actors/singers delivered their lines and numbers with energy and—occasionally—inspiration. Chesley Jo Ristaino’s Natalie is close to perfect, a teenaged girl caught in the throes of her own hopes and fears, trying to be the good child to two parents who barely notice her, and taking her own hesitant steps forward—and back—on her way to figuring out her place in the world. Ristaino never overdoes, never falls into pathos or too much drama, and her voice is clear and pure and exceptionally beautiful.
Matt Ferrell has a challenging task: to humanize a nice guy who lives in denial and whose life revolves mostly around his crazy wife. His codependency to her illness could easily make him into a caricature, but Ferrell resists and his Dan is fully human, baffled by his inability to make everything all right for his family, trying to do the right thing while having no idea what that might be. His voice is grand by itself but even better when blending with others and doing tight harmonies.
Van Cassele and Corr, as Diana and Gabe, have the most obviously dramatic roles in the play, and one can forgive them both a tendency to go a little over the top with their characters. What that means, of course, is that they’re not always emotionally and vocally in synch with the other actors, but the power and intensity they both project is impressive and just this side of overwhelming.
And as is often the case at Cape Rep—perhaps in a nod to its typically older audiences—the musical accompaniment is just a shade too loud.
Those issues aside, Next to Normal is next to fantastic. The stage direction is brilliant; the sets are perfect—that’s another Cape Rep staple—and are used cleverly and unobtrusively; and the moments of laughter serve to underscore rather than alleviate the exceptional difficulty of living with a mental illness.
Go see it!
Next to Normal plays at the Cape Rep Theater, Brewster, until October 13; find out more and reserve tickets at caperep.org. Photos courtesy Robert Tucker, Focal/Point Studio.