There’s a big surprise buried in “Next to Normal,” now at Center Stage, but I don’t care: I’m going to reveal it anyway. You may have heard that this pop-rock musical won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; yet as you watch it, there’s nothing about the hackneyed dialogue, pedestrian melodies, or predictable sentiments that’s remotely worthy of a literary prize. It’s shocking.
A booby-trapped plot twist is also sprung in the show, but I won’t reveal that, because it has nothing to do with why this show stumbles so badly. The show’s problem is not the concept but the execution. There’s no reason you couldn’t create a stage musical about mental illness that is entertaining and stimulating, but playwright/lyricist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt have failed to do so. Even if they had, director David Schweizer has had trouble casting performers who can both sing and act; he has also failed to establish a consistent tone and tempo.
One thing that the production gets right is the set design. Caleb Wertenbaker has created a handsome modern house, all in minimalist white. The two floors and parallel stairs accommodate four large screens for slides that deepen the environment and provide room for the six-piece band that is always visible but never obtrusive.
This is the comfortable, upper-middle-class home of the Goodman family: architect father Dan, self-confident 18-year-old son Gabe, tightly wound 16-year-old daughter Natalie, and bipolar mom Diana. We know something’s not quite right with Mom when she hands her husband and two kids their paper-bag lunches one morning and immediately gets to work on next week’s lunches by scattering slices of Wonder Bread all over the kitchen floor and squirting each one with mustard.
Ariela Morgenstern presents Diana as an attractive woman nearing 40 in youthful brown bangs and a low-cut blue dress; she radiates a contagious optimism, but the sandwich incident is just one example of her odd behavior. She loudly announces when she’s going to have sex with her husband and she tends to see things that aren’t strictly there. And this behavior wears down her extraordinarily patient husband and her not-very-patient children.
Her first shrink Dr. Fine (Matt Lutz) prescribes an ever-changing recipe for a drug cocktail; her second shrink Dr. Madden (also Lutz) tries talk therapy and then, when that goes nowhere, electroconvulsive therapy. Each approach leads to a few weeks of seeming good health before the same old problems reappear.
This is not a bad premise for a musical: The family’s and the doctors’ desire for a healthy Diana clashes repeatedly with the disease itself—sometimes in funny ways, more often in decidedly unfunny ways—and this conflict sparks drama and suspense. The gap between the characters’ public hopefulness and private despair could have led to a parallel contrast between spoken dialogue and inner-monologue songs.
Alas, Yorkey and Kitt are unable to capitalize on this potential. Too many of Yorkey’s lyrics are devoted to bald, belabored exposition, and when he delves into psychology, the best he can come up with are hoary clichés such as, “Let us start with a light in the dark.” Kitt traffics in analogous musical clichés, alternating between Linda Ronstadt-like soft-rock crooning and Pat Benatar-like hard-rock screeching. He doesn’t seem to understand that keeping your vocal lines restlessly on the move is not the same as carving out a memorable melody.
Morgenstern actually has an attractive voice, but she is unable to resist the songwriters’ repeated invitations to over-singing. “I Miss the Mountains,” the show’s best number, begins as a nicely understated ballad, but just as we’re being pulled into the song, Morgenstern shoves us back out with brassy belting that destroys any sense that this is an intimate confession. She has the same weakness as an actress, smacking us upside the head with a two-by-four when a tap would have been enough.
Justin Scott Brown and Matthew Rodin, who play son Gabe and Natalie’s high school boyfriend Henry, respectively, offer the same confounding mix: handsome voices betrayed by an overstatement that carries over into the dialogue. Michael Winther and Kally Duling, who play Dan the dad and Natalie the daughter, respectively, offer the exact opposite blend. They are the best actors in the cast, projecting Dan’s helpless good intentions and Natalie’s irrational impulses quite vividly but struggling to stay on pitch and fill out the tone when they sing.
The Los Angeles Times’ Charles McNulty, chairman of the Pulitzer Prize drama jury in 2010, was angered when the Pulitzer board dismissed the jury’s three recommendations and chose “Next to Normal” instead. The board, McNulty declared, suffered from “geographical myopia, a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away.” It’s a shame that Center Stage, which suffered so much from a similar Manhattan-centric view during Irene Lewis’ reign, should fall into the same trap.