Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Next to Normal
In Next to Normal, Director Scott Miller benefits from surprising and exceptional performances from his entire cast, in a story that will not settle for less: Jeffrey Wright (as Short's tormented husband) and Ms. Short (as Diana) both play trained architects in the story, but she almost seems more like an English major's own worst nightmare: a woman who has knowingly succumbed to being a literary device herself, arranging mosaics of white bread as a testament to her straitened life in suburbia; and struggling to find a compromise between her own intelligence and her backward-looking heart. And Mr. Wright exposes himself, emotionally, in ways far beyond what we've grown accustomed to.
The filmmaker Woody Allen likes to say "the artist creates his own moral universe," and that may also be the rule for Dianashe makes up her mind that some terrible incident from the past never really happened, and goes through hell to maintain the illusioneven as her husband attempts to "re-wire" the story of her life, following electric-shock therapy, with predictably awful results. In a sense, it's a grand science fiction musical, complete with horrifying technology set against the irrevocable human spirit, struggling over mortal destiny.
The whole thing might have become too dark for musical theater, but there are plenty of moments of really beautiful romance and wistful faithfulness (and even humor) that draw us along in this epic story of domestic turmoil: as Diana attempts various kinds of symbolic surgery on herself and on her mind. And the ultimate experiment takes us where no musical has gone before.
Mary Beth Black is hanging on for dear life as their daughter Natalie, presenting a kind of blazing intensity as she becomes more and more like her own troubled mother. And Ryan Foizey is lithe and irresistible as the son, even when the search for an island of sanity shifts dangerously against him, forcing some intensely dramatic changes near the end. It really is the artistic equivalent of brain surgery, with great songs by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt and a book by Yorkey (the score won a Tony Award in 2009, and the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama).
Joseph McAnulty is funny "ha-ha" as Natalie's goofy boyfriend, and he manages to provide about 90% of the stress-relief in the play, with his untroubled likability. Meanwhile, Zachary Allen Farmer is funny "strange" as several doctorsyou could easily say it's an "anti-medical" sort of story, but he manages to vest each doctor with a degree of humanity and honesty that exempts the scientific community from most of what Diana goes through, in her wide-ranging quest for recovery.
I was so struck by the results that I did a little asking around, concerning the exciting new depths plumbed by each actor on stage. And the very thoughtful answers I got back suggested director/producer Miller might have been able to focus a tiny bit more closely on characterizations this time, being freed-up from playing piano during rehearsals (Justin Smolik was the accompanist here)and, apparently, assistant director Mike Dowdy might have helped out with the actors a bit, too. And, of course, the play offers such great depths to be plumbed in the first place. However he did it, it's a major leap forward in depth of characterization offered by New Line Theatre. Watch out, everybody, the "bad boy of musical theater" is growing up!
And, thanks to ... whatever Mr. Miller did ... it's a wildly strange journey, full of breathtaking breakthroughs, in a night that ultimately belongs to Ms. Short.
Next to Normal through March 23, 2013, at the Washington University South Campus, in the former CBC prep school, 6501 Clayton Road, between Big Bend and Skinker Blvds. Ample parking is on the west side of the building. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com or call Metrotix at (314) 534-1111.
The New Line Band