There are as many plays about dysfunctional families as there are houses in suburban America. At least one show of this type wins a Tony Award every year. Yet, Next to Normal is not just any musical play; it is a work that is the epitome of family drama in contemporary musical theater.
Diana Goodman is suffering from a bipolar disorder that cuts her family like a metaphorical knife, and the audiences not only feel for her, but they also feel as if they are her. This is a show that uniquely deals with grief, suicide and mental health in a way that is distinctly personal and relatable. In 2008, this groundbreaking musical shook the entire theater world. Almost a decade later, Next to Normal was as touching and cutting-edge on the stage of Baruch College’s Bernie West Theatre, brought to life by student directors Ruthie Ostrow and Zeynep Akca, who also work at The Ticker.
For their sophomore work following last year’s debut in The Last Five Years, the bold directing duo took a risk and dives into the psychotic world of cut-open music and addictive emotions that is Next to Normal. Fortunately, their efforts paid off. Ostrow and Akca transformed the Bernie West space into a lonely house, where the Chekhovian truth that “less is more” lived and died. The characters balanced within the desperately minimalistic set of four furniture pieces, suffocating from the inability to escape the psychiatric facility called the past. The show’s lighting, designed by Michael Schulz, played with colors and perception, making the stage as small and blue as the characters were.
The story revolved around Diana, a mother of two who struggles to find a treatment for her worsening disorder. The implausible heroine is forcefully portrayed by Baruch debutant Lindsay Tierney. Diana’s bipolarity ruthlessly threw her from wall to wall — she went from being a neglecting monster to a careful sentimentalist without catching a breath. The protagonist lusted for medication in “Who’s Crazy/ My Psychopharmacologist and I,” drooled over the past in “I Miss the Mountains” and had a breakdown in “Didn’t I See This Movie?” She lived day-by-day, holding on to a motto that “what doesn’t kill me, doesn’t kill me.”
Her biggest wish was to live a normal life, but her mental state haunted her everywhere she turned. Diana’s genius daughter studied Flowers for Algernon, her enigmatic son read The Catcher in the Rye and Diana herself quoted Sylvia Plath. Her affectionate and loyal husband Dan Goodman, portrayed by Kristoff Modeste in a way that is plain as sandwich bread, stayed with her through all of the ups and downs. Together with her doctors, appropriately called Fine and Madden, and both enacted by the insanely versatile Elina Niyazov, Dan did everything he could to make Diana feel healthy. But everything was not enough.
Diana’s one joy in life was her son Gabe, personated by an electrifying Nicholas Leung. Gabe, who stayed nameless for almost the entire show, was both his mother’s sweet angel and seductive devil, taking her down the emotional labyrinth of manic memories. He was everything she wanted him to be and her worst fear. Being obsessed with the essence of her son, Diana almost gave up on her 16-year-old daughter Natalie, charmingly played by Danikha Catada, salting an already open wound which would take more than pills and therapy to heal.
Natalie’s world was brightened only by “her favorite problem,” girlfriend Henri, portrayed by Alessandra Licul in a brilliant gender switch that became the directors’ signature trick. But even the loving and patient Henri had to break many a wall to remind Natalie that she too deserved happiness and love.
As heavy as the show might have been, Ostrow and Akca never made their characters’ depression contagious. Even the show’s darkest moments were contrasted with joyful images, putting the ecstatic audience into the distorted reality of Diana’s mind, where she was happiest while at her highest low. Curiously enough, while the mother was the show’s driving engine, it seemed as if she did not belong in her own story, watching her family as if they were outside, and not around her.
But like in every mental condition, there were occasional beacons of light clarity. The characters were lost, yet they still had a chance to find themselves. Cohesive book and picturesque lyrics by Brian Yorkey moved the show in the direction of hope, never letting the story drive into abysmal pity.
The cast took on Tom Kitt’s pointillist rock score with a meticulous audacity; not a single false note slipped their mouths. Tierney’s vocal eccentricity, with a potential to make even Alice Ripley — Diana in the original Broadway production — proud, was balanced out by Modeste’s velvety depth and Leung’s glass-shattering falsettos. Yet the most touching moments came from the powerful female duets; there was likely not a single dry eye when Natalie and Diana make amends in a flawlessly harmonious “Maybe (Next to Normal).”
Leo Tolstoy opened his novel Anna Karenina with the phrase, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And while in the titular character’s case Anna throws herself under the train, Next to Normal manifested that the hardest decision sometimes is staying alive.
The show kept searching for normalcy, desperately trying to understand how it can be achieved without falling into the traps of pretentiousness. Normalcy is not a simple thing to define, and Ostrow and Akca’s version never gave a diagnosed answer, but the show left hope that musicals produced by Baruch students will be the new normal, or at least next to it.