Fraught Families in UP Stages’ “next to normal”

By Brian Pope

They don’t call it the nuclear family for nothing. Just ask the Goodmans.

Dan, Diana, Natalie, Gabe. “Father, mother, sister, brother cheek to cheek.†Or so Diana sings in “Just Another Dayâ€, the opening number of Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey’s (book and lyrics) Pulitzer Prize-winning musical next to normal.

Quickly, though, the veneer of the “perfect, loving family†goes up in flames. In reality, these relatives are at each others’ throats.

Diana endures passionless lovemaking with Dan. Natalie forgoes sleep, studying to maintain her stratospheric GPA. Gabe fails to sneak into the house after missing curfew for the umpteenth time.

This show tracks the slow and painful combustion of this nuclear family along a trail of tears, prescription pills, and unfathomable grief. It’s the unflinching and highly specific manner in which Kitt and Yorkey make these characters’ struggles with mental illness sing and sting that sets this musical apart as one of the most important of the last two decades. The University of Pittsburgh Stages production of next to normal, under the direction of Niffer Clarke, is forgettable by contrast.

While there are palpable emotional divides between the members of the Goodman family, they should still feel like a family. However fleeting, they bonded during happier times in the past. Before Diana’s unexpected pregnancy in the infancy of her relationship with Dan. Before Diana was diagnosed as bipolar depressive and became a somewhat reluctant subject to a battery of therapeutic and psychopharmacological treatments. Before the trauma that ignites her breakdown occurs.

The cast sings, as they do throughout the performance, beautifully about these moments in Act II’s “Song of Forgettingâ€. But, frustratingly, Clarke keeps the walls up between them. Her static staging emphasizes a lack of connection rather than portraying more compelling attempts and repeated failures to connect. The choices to have the characters simply pace around each other or, bizarrely, scoot around each other on wheeled stools rather than to have them truly engage with each other physically sap the energy out of the musical’s emotional peaks.

When Isabel Descutner as Natalie sings about feeling invisible in comparison to her invincible brother, you blame Clarke for never allowing Natalie’s angst to manifest as anything other than a series of petulant glares. She also shies away from the clear albeit uncomfortable romantic undertones to Diana’s relationships with her son Gabe (John A. Habib) and doctors Madden and Fine (both Pedar Garred), leaving numbers like “I Dreamed a Dance†and “Make Up Your Mind†to die on the vine.

Descutner, Habib, Garred along with Dennis Sen, who plays Natalie’s ardent admirer Henry, all give stellar vocal performances, but outside of that, they’re simply going through the motions of Clarke’s paint-by-numbers rendering of the story. Similarly, Laura Valenti’s muted set and TJ Hays’s busy lighting design cancel each other out, leaving the production with little aesthetic flair.

Taking the thematic cues embedded in Yorkey’s script from works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Catcher in the Rye, and Flowers for Algernon to heart, Ricardo Vila-Roger’s Dan and Meg Pryor’s Diana are the most fully realized characters and performances.

The aftershocks of Diana’s trauma literally register across Vila-Roger’s entire being when Dan pleads for Diana to trust him and recognize his dedication to her. All at once you see in his layered portrayal the optimistic college kid that Dan was when he swept Diana off her feet and the desperate middle-aged man he is now trying to keep his family from imploding. The production’s best moments are when he squares off with Pryor’s powerhouse Diana.

Her ability to skillfully navigate the quiet moments in Kitt’s electrifying pop-rock score distinguishes her work from the Tony-winning work of original Diana Alice Ripley. Pryor prevents Diana from being villainized or entirely redeemed by guiding the audience through Diana’s shifts in mood with a sure hand. She vividly externalizes the war Diana is fighting with her brain and the side effects of her various treatments.

When it premiered on Broadway in 2009 after about 10 years of development, next to normal was a shock to the system for New York audiences. It arguably broke the ceiling for the similarly themed massive hit musical Dear Evan Hansen. The Pitt Stages production of the former show feels more akin to the (hot take alert!) kid-glove-treatment-of-mental-illness sensibilities of the latter. You walk in expecting to get a dose of the real thing, but you leave knowing you were given the placebo.

next to normal plays through October 13 at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theater. For tickets and more information, click here.

Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.

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