TNC Archive 2014 
Theatre Review

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Brian Yorkey (Book), Tom Kitt (Music)

Next To Normal

Director: Simon Pittman

★★★★★

One aspect of the pandemic that continues to reverberate across societies all over the world is the affect that it has had on people's mental health. Isolation and limited contact, health, sports, the environment, etc., has left somewhat of a lasting impression on hundreds of millions of people. However, one unexpected result of all of this is that there is less stigma attached to people openly discussing their own mental health struggles. As the audience awaits the start of NEXT TO NORMAL, visual artists Desilence, Tatiana Halbach and Sren Christensen, projected statistics on the walls of IDEAL Barcelona which inform some really startling numbers.

There is something intimate about immersive theatre that offers audiences an unparalleled opportunity to become fully immersed in a performance. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical Next to Normal has had its props, set, and live music stripped away and reimagined as an immersive experience for the GREC Festival 2022 in Barcelona.

The "Goodman" family are a family who have, for too long perhaps, been dealing with tragedy and the painfully slow mental collapse of their matriarch, “Diana,” Alice Ripley. Her husband, “Dan,” Andy Señor Jr., on the surface seems unaffected by what his wife is going through but seems determined to “fix” her. Meanwhile, their 17-year-old daughter, “Nathalie,” Jade Lauren, is distanced from her mother with little or no real relationship between them. “Diana's” only refuge or saviour is her 18-year old son “Gabriel,” Lewis Edgar, who is more of a source of emotional strength than either “Dan” or “Nathalie”.

By the time “Diana” starts to see “Doctor Madden”, Adam Pascal, via ZOOM (a rather genius addition to this reworked production), she’s in the most fragile state she's ever been in, and not without good reason.

Having Alice Ripley, who originated “Diana Goodman” on Broadway, winning a Tony Award in the process, was perhaps the first of many monumental moves that this new production of Next to Normal made. Ripley brings a grounding and sense of urgency to the character that is brilliantly manifested through the experience and knowledge of who “Diana Goodman” is. Director Simon Pittman has done something really profound with his staging of Next To Normal . Its originality lies in the truth it presents and a heartbreaking portrayal of a family in crisis.

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Irrespective of the drugs and the therapy, “Diana” has not been listened to and the grief that she feels is one part guilt and one part unbearable loss that she'll likely never get over. And that should not be a bad thing. A loss of this kind is not something that goes away easily or even over time; this is a loss that will stay with a family for a long time, if not for life. It is difficult to be put in “Diana’s” shoes, but from the start of this production you feel a genuine sympathy for her, but it is not pity, it’s deeper than that. The audience is able to feel “Diana’s” agonising pain but equally her willingness to try and “get better”.

Whether this was by intention or by design, “Diana” has been ignored and her emotional grief diminished by her husband, who then seeks out new treatment for her with a male doctor. One can not be too judgmental about this situation, but it seems everyone around “Diana”, all those voices, real or imagined, are men telling her how she should feel and that she needs to let go of her grief. This is a fight many women face, and the societal pressures on them to move on from their pain are too great, and there tends to be little understanding of what they are going through by the people around them.

And this is where the real strength of this reimagined piece lies. The immersive nature of Next To Normal places the audience in the lives of this family. We sit with them, we see them, we also want to reach out and help them. There is nothing gimmicky about this staging; in fact, it is so incredibly elevated that you can’t help feeling angry. You understand that the "Goodmans" have been let down by the medical system and everyone else who they hoped would help them.

In walking away from Next to Normal, I was struck by some of the subtle dialogue and exchanges that exist within Brian Yorkey’s book. “Diana” is a woman who has not been listened to and, most importantly, hasn’t been supported by her husband. By acting as though everything is OK, “Dan” has unfortunately added to his wife's state of mind. Certain societies seem to perceive men who grieve for a loss as weak, and there tends to be greater social pressures on men to not show their emotions, which is what “Dan” does, and it is partly this projection that has the most lasting effect on “Diana”. She is told that if she grieves longer than four months she will need to be medicated, and yet whilst being medicated and trying to raise "Nathalie", the most important person she needs to support her, isn’t emotionally available to her.

But it is in the reprise of “I Am the One” that the audience finally gets to understand “Dan”. This moment between “Dan”, Señor Jr., and “Gabriel”, Edgar, holds such emotional power that it leaves you speechless. There is something genuine, honest, and pure about how Señor Jr., and Edgar realise this scene. There is an intimacy between the two actors that powerfully fuses with their characters in such a special and meaningful way. One doesn’t just hear every word; one feels the pain and utter sadness that “Dan” has been suppressing. It is within this one scene that the audience gets to understand why “Dan” has been so reluctant to mention “Gabriel” by name. *Spoiler* “Dan,” sitting in a chair, says “Gabriel’s” name for the first time in a long time, and at that moment, standing in front of him is a man, an 18-year-old man who should have had so much more life to live. As “Gabe” says, “Hi, Dad.” one could not help but feel the heartbreak and sadness of “Dan” seeing the man “Gabriel” would have become. The physical connection between father/son - Señor Jr.,/Edgar—was one of the truest visuals of love, compassion, loss, and grief I think I have ever seen in a theatre.

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"Though the musical is centred around the Goodman family, there are many salient topics and themes that highlight social issues people experience when their mental health is in crisis."

There must have been a great deal of pride for the cast to be able to bring this reimagined, immersive, production to life with the original “Diana,” Alice Ripley. One thing that is easy to notice right off is the chemistry between the small cast, and you feel that they not only connect to their characters in such a real and believable way, but as a company as well. Ripley is majestic and infuses the stage with class, skill, and delicate grace. There is a moment after the standing ovation where Ripley goes over to where she had folded a coat to collect it to take it away with her, carrying it in such a gentle way. This was a small detail, but one that I noticed and thought was incredibly touching. Edgar shines as “Gabriel” and, much like the connection he has with Señor Jr., he shares something special and real with Ripley. There are multiple scenes between them that tend to leave you in awe at the incredible way they work together. Señor Jr., has to balance the blame and guilt that “Dan” has been feeling all these years with the resoluteness of a father and a husband who needs/wants to move on. We see that at his very core is a man who loved his son, and losing him was one of the greatest pains he never wanted to revisit. Thanks to Señor Jr., who allows the audience to see “Dan's” side while also preventing you from blaming him heavily for what “Diana,” has been through. Perhaps one of the most challenging characters in the piece is “Nathalie,” as she seems to be forgotten by both parents and she’s in competition with “Gabriel” in such an unfair way. Lauren is a revelation and brings to life a challenging adolescent with true conviction. She so powerfully conveys the isolation, sadness, and abandonment of “Nathalie,” and though she’s spiralling, she’s not fully hitting rock bottom. “Nathalie” gets some comfort from “Henry,” Eloi Gómez, who offers her attention and also some stability and love. Much like Lauren and Edgar, Gómez has really connected to who “Henry” is, and there is a sweetness to his realisation of the character that is heartwarming and touching. “Henry” is there for “Nathalie” and she knows this, and through each of their scenes, Gómez and Lauren share a spark that lights up their characters' hopes and futures.

This intimacy and interconnectedness among the cast, and how it manifests itself poetically towards the audiences, is a real credit to their director, Simon Pittman, who has really understood the text, its deeply meaningful message, and has been able to create a genuine stage family.

NEXT TO NORMAL is a musical that will toy with you for a time once you leave it, and if you are not left with questions, then I would recommend seeing it again. Though the musical is centred around the “Goodman” family, there are many salient topics and themes that highlight social issues people experience when their mental health is in crisis. I was left wondering what the long-term effects of “Diana's” medication had on her physical and mental health, and why medication was prescribed four months after losing a child. I was also left wondering how “Diana's” doctors thought that it was a good idea to prescribe medication to someone who had another young child, “Nathalie”, to take care of. I can't tell whether I would have had the same questions if I had seen a more traditional production of Next to Normal, but due to the immersive nature of this production, I felt a stronger and deeper connection to the “Goodman’s” and I was angry about how they had been treated, especially about how “Diana” was treated.