"Next To Normal" illuminates the intricacies of mental illness.

The Redhouse puts on the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical.

Winning the 2009 Tony Award for best score and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, next to normal, written by Brian Yorkey and scored by Tom Kit, stands as a milestone in musical history for its outstanding achievement in terms of both its literary and musical qualities. 

Red House Arts Center brings this contemporary rock musical legend to Syracuse, giving the local audience an unforgettable experience that’s heartbreaking, and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. 

Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski
Emma Goodman (Kate Metroka) and Henry (Tim Murray) holding onto each other in a tender embrace in Redhouse's production of "next to normal."

The show tells a story about Diane, a mother, whose sufferings caused by bipolar depression ultimately leads to massive struggle for her entire family. Dan, the husband, Natalie, the daughter, and Diane herself, as well as the spiritual son Gabe, are all thrown in the midst of anguish where their relationships are ruined, their lives are crushed, and their souls are torn apart. 

For the most part, it looks like it’s such a painful drama that every member of the family has been through hell. However, as actor and author Carrie Fisher said on the 2009 Tony Awards ceremony, the story of next to normal is actually “an intense, emotional, and ultimately hopeful” one. 

It’s hopeful, not only because of the humorous way that it’s told, but also its light comedic tone. And most importantly, there is an abundant supply of emotions in the story: fear of mental illness, grief over the loss of loved ones, anger for being constantly ignored or forcefully discarded. 

Yet, among all those negative emotions, there exists the thinnest string of light within the deepest darkness, the joy of hope, of tomorrow, and of having at least an almost normal life together. 

As for this Red House production, it should be fair enough to say that Stephen Svoboda, the director, presents a successful show in a limited space with a comparably novice team. 

While the stage can’t afford a three-story set as on Broadway, Svoboda ingeniously divides the stage into three parts horizontally and has a two-story house behind them to fully exploit the stage’s width and depth. Different characters carry out different story lines simultaneously. The beauty of parallel montage in movies gets to be realized on the stage. Also, the lighting design exhibits a very high-level quality in terms of the color choices and accurate orientation in the demand of plot development. 

Laura Austin, who plays the role of Diane, undeniably possesses great vocal talent and solid performance skills, however, fails to fully take on the task of becoming the center of all the conflicts as well as the core of the entire show. Similarly, Kate Metroka’s performance also lacks a burst of energy to make the character Natalie as convincing as she should. Nevertheless, Ian Jordan Subsara accomplishes such a brilliant debut of himself in Red House Arts Center with his incredible voice, impeccable dance movement, and unstoppable energy. Like his number “I’m Alive”, he brings the dead son Gabe’s role back to life, making him so vividly alive, so breathtakingly real, that he turns out to be the shiniest star of the production. 

Though next to normal creates one of those rare occasions that when you read a musical without any music, the play itself still works, the perfect combination of the story and rock score is the reason why it become even more powerful. Unlike most other musicals, where the numbers are separated from dialogues, either for the purpose of pure presentation of characters’ inner activities, or emotional expressions, the distinctive aspects of this musical is that it interweaves them in a fashion that lyrics and lines are completely unified. 

Watching the show shares a great resemblance with enjoying a pop/rock concert, only this time, you also get to listen to a deeply moving story as well. The story touches every emotional chord it possibly can. As Ben Brantley, theatre critic for the New York Times, writes for the foreword of the play, "This is a feel-everything musical"

The show runs in reperatory with "Pterodactyls" at the Redhouse through February 8th.

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