Serious mental illness might well seem an unlikely jumping off point for musical theater. But with “Next to Normal,” now at the Wilbury Group in Providence, the subject becomes a powerful drama mostly well done.
Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics for the engrossing “Next to Normal” once opined that “musicals can be ridiculous.”
“You know, all those people breaking into song all the time,” he said. But the author also pointed out that, somehow, a good musical can be “sublime.”
And, indeed, that is largely the case with “Next to Normal.” which is receiving a heartfelt, truthful production under direction by Wendy Overly at the Wilbury Group, a theater not afraid to take on tough subjects.
“Next to Normal” moves us into a land where almost all things seem misshapen. Struggle is a daily, even a minute-to-minute, affair. The heroine, and that is the word, for Diana, a wife, mother, and victim all at once. For years she has suffered from an illness defined as bi-polar disorder. Her world is one of twirling, difficult motions, of non-stop medicines, of talk therapy, of trying to keep it all together.
For Diana, being just “next” to normal is as close as she can get to the life most of us lead. That also goes for her husband and daughter and, others, sometimes, even her physician.
A song about “a few of my favorite pills” sums up the humor and fear and resignation that surround Diana and those around her. I know. This is making “Next to Normal” sound entirely like a drama on the unrelenting cold side.
But it really isn't. Author Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt manage to bring humor, and heroism, into the text of this show, which is one of the few musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize.
The Wilbury production begins on a very workable set by Katryne Hecht. It's all iron-appearing poles and a great ladder that allows the cast to scamper and clamor up and down, all the time, kind of a metaphor for Diana's life, perhaps.
Director Overly, a resident artist at the Gamm Theatre, never allows the action to slow. This drive makes the difficulty of “Next to Normal,” engrossing despite that it is a trifle over-long, with a band that is over-loud at times.
Moira Costigan-Carraher plays Diana as a woman taxed by an unspoken grief, living in a whirlwind of anxiety, fear, and, thank goodness, sometimes a little hope. When she says quietly “I miss my life,” her situation is heart-rending. Her powerful charge is undercut sometimes when her diction as a singer is not what it might be. But she holds your attention and empathy throughout. She has the fear of a world unknown in her eyes and you root for her, always.
James Fernandes is also very fine as her long-suffering husband. The rest of the cast brings strong support.
Now I have stayed away from telling much about the plot. “Next to Normal” is filled with U-turns, and great changes. It's confusing, actually, at times. But one thing is for sure, this is an important theatrical work, one that both confronts and requests empathy.
“Next to Normal” continues at the Wilbury Group in Providence through June 13th.
Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.