Smile Politely

“At times, it does hurt to be healed.”

Diana Goodman (Jodi Prosser) seems like a normal, middle-aged mother of two until she frantically begins making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. It is at that moment that we realize Diana and her suburban family are, as the title suggests, not quite “normal.” Next to Normal is a compelling character study and raw exploration of the various ways people deal — or don’t deal — with their pain.

The musical focuses on the central character of Diana (the electric Prosser), who is bipolar depressive, and her family’s ways of coping with her mental illness. This relentless musical places pain center stage, and never shrinks from showing genuine human anguish in the most sincere ways possible. The New York Times referred to the musical — which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, as well as three Tony Awards — as not a “standard feel-good musical,” but a “feel-everything musical.” Next to Normal challenges its audience with its complicated and truthful depictions of a suburban family swept away by loss.

At its heart, Next to Normal examines grief and the literal and metaphorical ways in which we self-medicate — whether it is with pharmaceutical or recreational drugs, or other coping mechanisms, such as denial. I’m hesitant to describe the plot in detail, since the musical delivers its revelations so beautifully; for those of you who are unfamiliar with this breathtaking musical, I’d hate to ruin your full enjoyment. The basic plot revolves around the aforementioned Diana who seeks psychiatric treatment for her mental illness, and how the members of her family — her stolid husband Dan (the superbly voiced Andy Hudson), angst-ridden teen Natalie (Allison Morse), and son Gabe (Chris Johnson) “get by.” During the course of the musical, Diana tries various treatments for her illness, supervised by various ambivalent doctors (played by a single actor, Steve Conaton).

As Diana struggles with her various treatments, librettist Brian Yorkey presents a fierce interrogation of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. In the hilarious, yet truthful, number, “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” Diana is prescribed countless medications in a trial-and-error fashion, all the while various horrific side effects are listed, which leaves the audience wondering, “What’s worse: the symptom or the cure?” Ultimately, Next to Normal presents both the failure and potential success of our mental health care system. As Diana’s doctor states, “Is medicine magic? You know that it’s not. We know it’s not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got. It’s all that we’ve got.”

Prosser is a dynamic force, candidly portraying Diana’s inescapable descent into madness. Prosser’s Diana is, at times, flirty, sexual, and witty, which makes her periods of confusion and rage even more heart wrenching. Prosser sounds fantastic on all of her songs, but she truly shines when she captures Diana’s vulnerability — both “I Miss the Mountains” and “I Dreamed a Dance” were vocally solid and moving.

Though Diana is at the center of Next to Normal’s emotional maelstrom, the musical also insightfully portrays the struggles of her family members. Hudson, as the stalwart Dan who is “livin’ on a latte and a prayer,” teems with cheery optimism; his greatest tragedy is when that optimism fails. Johnson not only sings superbly, but he portrays Dan’s struggle as a husband and caregiver beautifully. Hudson will break your heart more than once during this show.

Morse is a powerful singer and excels as the “genius” and “freak” daughter, Natalie, who wants a relationship with her mother, but fears that she will become her. I’ve had the opportunity to see Morse in some other local productions, and this is her finest performance yet. Morse works well with the charming Dylan Connelley, who plays the adorable stoner Henry. Connelley was a surprising standout. His Henry is immensely likable, providing a refreshing and cheerful break from the otherwise unhappy narrative. Johnson’s Gabe is a wonderful mix of perfect son and bad influence, and he necessarily alternates between charismatic and menacing.

Tom Kitt’s score is chaotic and explosive — representative of Diana’s mental state. A six-piece band skillfully plays the rock-inspired score and Music Director Alex Zelck has done a fantastic job with both the band and cast. The cast attacks the score with precision and heart, and they sound great with the band, though I question the decision not to use microphones, as they would have improved the sound mix.

Rachel Witt-Callahan’s dual-level scenic design works nicely with Harrison Hohnholt’s lighting, and borrows the piping aesthetic from the original Broadway production. The result is visually striking, but I found that some of the actors had difficulty navigating through the set on opening night — an unfortunate hindrance that will most likely subside as the run progresses. A special mention must go to Thom Schnarre’s costume designs that, while seemingly “normal,” suggest a great deal about the characters and their relationships to one another (my favorite costume design has to be the choice to put Gabe in various superhero shirts). The designs all work together to create a disjointed but modern feel, and Station Artistic Director Rick Orr directs the emotional rollercoaster with sincerity.

Considering the Station’s propensity for tackling intellectually engaging and challenging works, I’m not surprised that Next to Normal appeared on their season. I doubt many of our other local theatres would want to produce this compelling, yet demanding musical, so I encourage you to take advantage of this production now, as it is unlikely to be in the Champaign-Urbana area again soon.

Next to Normal packs an emotional punch and is one of the most heartrending and beautiful musicals to come out in recent years. It is a wonderfully complex musical replete with fascinating characters that you will wonder about long after you leave the theatre. There are no straightforward answers in Next to Normal; the questions and the journey are of chief importance. Towards the end of the show, Diana questions the efficacy of her treatments, saying, “What happens if the cut, the burn, the break, was never in my brain or in my blood but in my soul?” Unfortunately, pain is not so easy to cure, and the only thing we know for sure is that, “At times it does hurt to be healed.” 

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Performances continue May 1–5 and May 8–11. Tickets are available by calling (217) 384-4000 or reserving online.

photos by Sean O’Connor

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