"Next to Normal" played at the Fox several years ago. If you liked it then, return to the former CBC's black box theater to see what New Line Theatre has done with it. This is a play that almost desperately needs a small venue, the better to catch the behavioral details of a story that's mostly about thinking rather than physical gestures.
It's the musical - no, certainly not a musical comedy - about bipolar disease, although the script certainly softens many of the very sharp edges of the diagnosis. Kimi Short, playing Diana, the woman with the diagnosis, is restrained in all but the most over-the-top moments, almost too flat under these conditions. Jeffrey M. Wright, her husband, whose world has surely altered considerably over the years of their marriage because of her illness reminds one of the saying"We marry at the level of our mental health - or lack thereof". Wright carries the weight well. Both psychiatrists fall into the capable hands of Zachary Allen Farmer. The second one, Dr. Madden, described to the couple as a rock star of psychiatrists, calls to mind both Gene Simmons in his KISS persona and MASH's gentle Sidney Freedman, not an easy duo to pair, but Farmer is flawless.
It's a show with a fine score. The voices are good, and the house band has been amped up with a violin and cello to add to the sound. And "amped up" might be a little too accurate; the sound balance, especially in the first act, was off, muffling the words to songs where lyrics are part of the fun, especially in "My Psychopharmacologist and I" which features a long list of psychotropic drugs. But it was difficult, often impossible to make out exactly what was being sung.
How much leeway artistic license can give (or take) with details on something as soul-searing as mental illness was the subject of a considerable amount of post-show discussion. Maybe for some, this is like the folks who don't like a movie because the soldiers are wearing shoulder patches of a unit that was actually stationed on another continent at the time the battle took place. It's an interesting question with no firm answers. But the softening of illness symptoms, the severity of electroconvulsive therapy's sequelae, and perhaps an inference that all this is just due to unresolved grief does require a considerable amount of the old willing suspension of disbelief for many.
Still, a strong cast and a good score win out. Runs through March 23.
Next to Normal
New LIne Theater
Washington University South Campus Theatre