BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL Is Sadly Still Relevant at Split Stage
I had a conversation with the cast and director of a local production of Cabaret a few days ago, about how theatre changed with the advent of the Internet. The visual presentation and iconic look of shows became much more relevant, much more permanently associated with shows, once photographs and video were as easy to find as cast recordings. You'll rarely if ever see a Cabaret that doesn't exist in the shadow of the Sam Mendes production, or someday a Hamilton without some of the iconic visual and performance signifiers. I'm not even calling it design laziness or plagiarism: the shows of today simply exist in a more tangible, permanent form than they did before the late 1990s. With that said, there's something to be said for productions that take some of those iconic elements and ignore them, crafting something different instead. Split Stage's production of Next to Normal reinvents one of the central characters, and it changes the entire piece.
In Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's award-winning musical, Diana Goodman (Meighan Lloyd Harding) and Dan Goodman (Brady D. Patsy) are a middle-class, approaching-middle-aged couple whose family life is rendered increasingly fraught by Diana's battles with mental health. Sedated into a glassy sameness by an unfeeling doctor (Breanna Deutsch), Diana loses her sense of self, goes off the meds, and enters the biggest psychotic break of her life, until Dan enlists the help of a more progressive and compassionate doctor (again, Breanna Deutsch) to assist in getting Diana the help she needs.
Oh, and also Diana's dead son Gabe (Chad Grubb) is still hanging around eighteen years after his death as an infant, maybe as a metaphor, maybe as a hallucination, maybe as an actual supernatural presence. It's that kind of show.
As our central couple, Lloyd Harding and Patsy are real, grounded and perpetually down to earth, an essential grounding for a show that exists in a space between realism and magic realism as much as Next to Normal does. Lloyd Harding's voice surprised me in its resemblance to the original Diana, Tony Award winner Alice Ripley; they both share the high, wide mezzo-soprano vibrato that both communicates such vulnerability and fits the alt-country vibe of Tom Kitt's score so well. Patsy, a veteran character actor and comic sideman recently transitioned to a full-on leading man, has a deep, rich baritone that sometimes chafes against the tenor-heavy demands of many contemporary shows, and when the score allows him to relax into his musical sweet spot, it's sure to make audiences wish more shows took advantage of the lower end of the musical spectrum.
Patsy also has the most convincing flashback sequence of the entire show, assisted by costumes designed by Sharon Wiant and Lisa Harkins; simply by throwing on a t-shirt and letting his tight, very 2020 men's updo down into dreads, his lightened body language transforms him visually and physically into Dan's college self. This leads me to a side note- 2020's "present day" is not all that different than 2009's "present day," but it's significant enough that characters now use cell phones and implied social media for at least one scene which was originally presented as characters leafing through a physical photo album. In a perfect world, Next to Normal would feel just as dated as that physical photo album, as mental health treatment and stigma would have moved on by now- but this is not that world.
Claire Stoller and Dan Mayhak deliver gentle, heartfelt performances as teenage daughter Natalie and her supportive stoner boyfriend Henry, though their roles in the show sometimes seem secondary thanks to the heavy focus on Diana through all of Act 1 and most of Act 2. But the most unconventional, and interesting to unpack, performance is that of Chad Grubb, as the ghostly Gabe. If there's one image everyone remembers from the Broadway production of Next to Normal, it's the intensely charismatic, somewhat sexualized, performance of Aaron Tveit as Gabe. He had shower scenes, shirtless scenes, even a bit of pole-dancing choreography, and his relationship with Diana was much less clear-cut as "mother and son" than vaguely incestuous: was he her ideal child or her ideal lover? Grubb's portrayal ditches the Freudian rock-star routine, instead portraying Gabe as sensitive, shy, loving and withdrawn- part mama's boy and part, well, mama herself reflected back.
It really works, except for several moments at the end of the show: Gabe's ambivalent malevolence and lust for attention and control, perpetually present in Tveit, has been replaced by a sense of vulnerability and loss. Grubb's Gabe doesn't want to fuck Diana or possess her body, like Tveit so often seemed to, but simply to exist, not to be forgotten and destroyed. In a similarly successful reimagining, the peculiar medication-induced sexual impulses that the original production had Diana implicitly focus onto her son are here focused onto Breanna Deutsch as the aloof Dr. Fine and the compassionate Dr. Madden. Deutsch, to her credit, avoids any hints of "quack doctor" in a difficult role as proponent of experimental and invasive techniques.
As directed by Laura Wurzell, the staging is simple and direct, allowing the dialogue and music to move us more than some of the flashier elements of staging and lighting present in the original Broadway production. A series of projected sketches bring elements of horror into the already Gothic-tinged story; I may never forget the image of a baby's hand bursting from Brady D. Patsy's throat to shut his mouth. But more than anything onstage, I was moved by what I heard offstage: audiences discussing the themes and messages of the play at intermission and after the show. When one character, in the final scene, asks to get professional help, I heard sighs of relief and saw nods of affirmation from all over the auditorium; how much more successful can a play be than that?