Some plays should have a warning label placed on them.
If Next to Normal had one, it would read: "Not recommended for those who have been caregivers for the severely mentally ill, cleaned up after a loved one's suicide or attempt, or have lost a child, as it may be triggering as hell. Also uses strobe lights."
Okay, they warned us about the strobe lights.
Next to Normal is a marvel of writing. I didn't think a Broadway musical could hold water when it is a story in microcosm: there is nothing going on in the story outside this small family and its trials. I generally tend to think of musicals as something bigger, on the scale of a revolution or operatic murder. The story of a bipolar housewife and her struggles to achieve sanity seem pretty small.
But Next to Normal draws you in from the beginning with strong music and a wry humor that gives you a sense of empathy that you might not otherwise achieve. It wrenches at your heart, whether or not you've experienced the issues on the warning label. And if you haven't, it just might teach you a thing or two.
For those who have made it out the other side, it honestly might be cathartic - someone gets it at last! But for those still dealing with such traumas, it really might be triggering, so I'm only half-kidding about the warning label.
There are moments of extreme creepiness, moments of honest and raw emotion, and moments that will make you giggle. Not, I'm afraid, the ending, unless you were one of the idiotic drunken people in the next box at the Fox Theater. You, the ones who laughed at moments as intense as Schindler's List? Yes, during the Friday night show. I'm talking to you. I'm the one who was in the stage-right box with my friend who scored the super-deluxe tickets, the one who turned around and glared at you to shut the hell up. I expect such behavior from teenagers at the movie theater, not people whose companies paid $30,000 a year for a box at the Fox.
(P.S. I could get used to this Fox Club stuff. Gated-community parking, a private entrance, a personal waiter to bring you fancy drinks? I felt like the aristocracy looking down at the groundlings. Usually I'm standing in line for the unsold limited-vision seats in the nosebleed section.)
Drunken idiots aside, I found Next to Normal to be an emotional rollercoaster and one of the few plays in which I truly did not know how it would end. We were a tad dismayed when we arrived and discovered that the lead character would be played by her understudy, Pearl Sun. I don't know how good the regular lead is, but Sun absolutely blew me away, both with her voice and her acting. When a woman weeps onstage, very few weep with her. But Sun wrenched the tears from the audience, and her standing ovation was well-deserved.
My companion remarked that none of the songs were really stand-out sing-in-the-shower numbers that you take home with you, and this is true. Next to Normal is less of a traditional musical and more of an opera in that regard, where little is spoken and most is sung, with one song blending into another seamlessly without the cue lines that tend to indicate, "Time for another number!"
It also has some surprises, one of which is only one-third of the way through the first act. Just as nothing is normal in the Goodman house, nothing is quite as it seems. I find I want to go see it again if only to pick up on the clues I might have missed.
Next to Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama even though it was not nominated by the gatekeeping committee. While snubbed by the Tonys - it lost to Billy Elliot, which at least is better than losing to Shrek - it keeps gathering steam from audiences who don't want to check their brains at the door and aren't afraid to face some of the dark corners of the human psyche. Whether or not you're a fan of the song-and-dance musical, I strongly recommend seeing Next to Normal while you still can. It runs through April 24 at the Fox Theater in St. Louis.
Just mind those warning labels.