by Michael Meigs
Zach's staging of the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey work Next to Normal is stunning -- but not in the usual reviewer-speak meaning of the word. The intensity of the emotion, the huge volume of sound, the zig-zag of florescent lighting on the back walls of the set and above all the pitiless focus upon the mental illness of a suburban wife and mother -- all of these foster a numbness of mind that leaves you feeling as if you had swallowed a 200 mg capsule of Thorazine at the opening of the show.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. It shows that the Zach succeeds in setting the opera's message deep into the brain,down there where the limbic system controls emotion, memory and cognition. For a musical work about grief, disorientation and pharmacology, that's exactly the intention.
The Pulitzer committee that awarded the New York production of Next to Normal the drama prize for 2010 called it "a powerful rock musical . . . . that expands the scope of subject matter for musicals." My experience of the Zach production -- my trip along with housewife Diana and her family into her hell -- left me feeling that "rock musical" was an inadequate term for the evening. It isn't "rock" in the Elvis Presley sense or even the Pink Floyd sense, and although it was told almost entirely in sound and song, one couldn't really classify it as corresponding to most of the conventions of famimliar American musical theatre. The score and story are complex and contemporary, all too relevant to our American experience. Let's be frank: let's call it a contemporary opera, even though that designation might be a drag at the box office.
Dave Steakley uses Zach regulars for most of the roles, the single exception being UT senior Kelli Schultz. Meredith McCall as the semi-schizophrenic Diana sheds her usual flair and appears sickly and hollow-eyed, visibly declining in the second act. There's huge vocal power in that fragile frame.
Jamie Goodwin as good-guy hubby Dan uses his recognizable all-American tall guy persona, patient and positive, wincing when the demons appear and trying to gather them in like puppies. Andrew Cannata is back where he likes to be, belting away as 18-year-old son Gabe. His "I'm alive!" numbers have the amplitude of young adulthood with the selfishness of a spoiled child, in a performance that resembles his Rent rants. Johnny Newcomb is once again the somewhat unlikely romantic interest, this time as sometime stoner Henry instead of the disaffected young intellectual Melchior of Spring Awakening.
Teen daughter Natalie justly feels neglected by her parents -- her unbalanced mother is entirely somewhere else and her determinedly balanced father is busy trying to anchor mom Diana in reality. Young Natalie is a musician, readying her Mozart recital as a college entrance qualification. Inevitably with the stress and would-be boyfriend Henry's sly invitations to blow weed, Natalie tips away from Mozart's cool, mathematically balanced music into the percussive, emphatic and often dissonant sonic world of composer Tom Kitt.
Joshua Denning plays Diana's various doctors. He has assiduously cleaned up from his performance as transvestite Angel in Rent. He owns a very funny moment in the production when Diana hallucinates him as a rock star, but Denning as the embodiment of the medical establishment is essentially the villain of the piece. His is the voice that tells us with clinical professionalism that deep grief continuing beyond four months requires pharmacological treatment; he also explains with cool assurance that electro-convulsive treatment ("ECT") will make her feel so much better.
The Diana we see toward the end of the second act has had most of her memories and much of her personality stripped away. Left in that confusion, she does make a decision; it's one that doesn't convince us that her condition will really improve, but the song and story seek to persuade us that at least that act of will promises some hope of a life that's "next to normal."
It's an untidy world, director Dave Steakley, the artists and the creators are telling us, and we have to live through the clangor and confusion as best we can. They never resolve the unstated enigma at the heart of this story: did that one particular devastating loss all those years ago send a latent schizophrenic off the deep end? Or was her mental illness in fact actually caused by the medical establishment -- have the harrowing delusions been essentially iatrogenic and pharmacologenic?
We can't know. We can only subject ourselves to Diana's story, watching her and those around her as they attempt to help and cope.
Kitt's music and Yorkey's book and lyrics batter us; Michael Raiford's ingenious set with the sliding panels, chain link fencing and sterile central stair reinforces the notion of barriers, shadows and secrets. The six-member band driving the music line is situated high at stage left and in addition to the expercted elements of a stage ensemble includes Joseph Shuffield's violin and Hector Moreno's cello. They fill the space and our ears with Kitt's unpredictable, complex music and unhummable accompaniments.
Next to Normal uses a "gotcha!" surprise about halfway through the first act, one that turns your understanding of the story inside-out. Unless, of course, you read a "spoiler" review before going to see the production. The surprise occurs during the scene of joyful Diana bringing the birthday cake onstage to the dinner table. Watch for it. And thank whatever gods you have -- pink pills, video fantasy or religion -- that you're not living in Diana's delusional wasteland.
Review by Michael Graupmann for Culturemap Austin, January 29
Comments by Claire Canavan for the Statesman's Austin360.com Seeing Things blog, January 31 (346 words)
Claire Canavan interviews Meredith McCall for the Statesman, January 26
Adam Roberts mentions Meredith McCall in a piece on leading ladies done for the Austin Chronicle, January
Review by Spike Gillespie on her blog 'Spike Speaks," February 15
Review by Elizabeth Cobbe for the Austin Chronicle, February 16
Review by Ryan E. Johnson for examiner.com, March 2
Click to view "It's Going to Be Great!" video from Zach's production, YouTube
Click to view excerpts from the program of Next to Normal at the Zach Theatre