Next To Normal (National Tour) – Curran Theatre, San Francisco, CA
This hot button, topical show arrived in San Francisco on the heels of its high acclaim as a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning show. I will acknowledge that my interpretation of the play might have been different if I was not a current student of psychology. The timing is perfect to see a show like this, with songs such as “My Psychopharmacologist and I” – and I’ve just started a course in Psychopharmacology. As such, it was a stellar excursion for show #5 of the year. By the end of the show, I was willing to join the rest of the crowd in a standing ovation, which is rare for me, as I like to think I hail from the more refined British level of acclaim – you appreciate a play, but don’t jump out of your seat after every production. I also acknowledge that my comments might have been slightly more enthusiastic if I had written this immediately following the show. It was not very likely that I would do that at 1-2am yesterday morning. But I do notice a different feeling with a few days hindsight and after reading the reviews of the show, published today, ranging from strong in the San Francisco Chronicle to modest-fair in another publication. Admittedly, the show covers a polarizing topic of bipolar disorder, and audience reactions are bound to be fairly distinct at each performance. In reading over some of the publicity material with star Alice Ripley, it seems that variability is a big part of her attraction to the part and reason for resuming the role in the national tour. This tour will run for 36 weeks, more than half a year. The theatrical work minded side of me is of course envious that the actors and stage managers have secured such a long gig.
Back to the show. The plot outlines the story of Diana, an attractive suburban housewife, and her complicated life with bipolar disorder. We’re introduced to her family members: supportive husband Dan, feisty teenage daughter Natalie, and seemingly supportive son Gabe. It is immediately clear that the household has challenges, where Diana has struggled with her bipolar disorder for a number of years. However, there is resiliency. Dan recognizes that his wife has difficulty with certain parts of her life and tries to offset it with his own support. The plot makes clear that this does not present easy management or living for Dan, and as the show goes on, he becomes increasingly questioning. Their children take a similar approach to a point, with Natalie’s character arc somewhat abruptly developed as she takes on a new boyfriend, tries life with pills, and becomes generally spiteful of her mother, before arcing back to the other, “normal” side of her life. Through it all, Diana, the mother, is left to confront her own choices, delusions, heart resonance and quality of life as she figures out what she wants. She encounters two doctors along the way, played by the same actor, but mostly stays within her family confines. Her challenges were skillfully underwritten by the multi-layered stage set, which I was surprised by at first glance. All of the actors moved around the space with urgency and purpose throughout the show. In fact, that very tone of immediacy and purpose was something that I most appreciated about the play. Too often, it seems that musicals might draw you into an elaborate fairyland, where suspension of disbelief is taken for granted, and audiences are expecting to be strung along by musical numbers. Not so with this piece.
Opening Night was technically challenged by what was either vocal strain from Alice Ripley or a very rough sound mix. Ripley projected significant intelligence and moral gravitas in her acting. When she switched gears into her singing, I was surprised to hear a lower alto register. It was difficult to interpret many of her lyrics as the show went on. In contrast, her colleagues project extremely clear singing voices, most notably Asa Somers as Dan.
The cast is only really just getting into their game with this tour. Judging from their wide, genuine smiles at the curtain call, it seems clear that the experience has much meaning and generosity and they are treating their level of artistic expression with generosity and gravitas.