Lyricist-book writer Brian Yorkey and his composer partner Tom Kitt researched well bipolar disorder to write the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical Next to Normal, about one woman’s battle with the mental affliction and its effect on her family.
And in his program note, Zoetic Stage artistic director Stuart Meltzer is very candid about his own history with depression. His very personal and original approach to the show, combined with a wrenchingly emotional performance by Jeni Hacker, makes for a stunning evening of theater that deserves to be seen by anyone open to experiencing the dark recesses of musical theater.
Those who have seen Zoetic’s productions of the boundary-pushing musicals of Stephen Sondheim will surely recognize Yorkey and Kitt as kindred spirits. They have both the audacity to write a musical about mental illness and to make it searingly dramatic and surprisingly funny.
Welcome to the fogged-in world of Diana Goodman, a suburban housewife and mother whose traumatic past has left her unmoored from reality. Her husband Dan (Ben Sandomir) is a genuine soulmate to her, though clearly in over his head in his efforts to help Diana, and perhaps in need of some help for himself. So he encourages her to see doctors, even if their only answers seem to be excessive mind-numbing medication or, in one harrowing instance, electro-shock therapy.
Diana’s mental condition takes its toll on the rest of her family. Teenage daughter Natalie understandably feels neglected to the point of invisibility, destined to be relegated under the shadow of attention her mom requires, as well as that of her older brother, Gabe. So Natalie takes a boyfriend, a genial stoner named Henry (Joseph Morell), in an attempt at forging a normal life — whatever that means.
Normalcy is the quest of the whole Goodman family and that journey is the arc of the show. And as the title foreshadows, they find that something next to normal is sufficient for them.
Yorkey and Kitt, however, have no intention of settling for a normal musical. In crafting this highly unconventional ride, they created some powerful roles that the Zoetic cast brings to life with visceral impact. Foremost among them is tiny Hacker, who gave such towering, Carbonell-winning performances in the company’s Sweeney Todd and Passion. With haunted eyes and a vocal delivery that ranges from a whisper to a primal scream, her Diana is on a rarified par with those earlier efforts.
Hers is necessarily the standout performance, but Meltzer understands that Next to Normal needs to be an ensemble piece for the show to work to its optimum. Among the cast, Nate Promkul brings son Gabe alive with neck vein-straining intensity and Sandomir draws palpable audience empathy as Diana’s perplexed husband.
Meltzer’s staging is free-form and fluid on a near empty stage, soon dominated by scenic designer David Goldstein’s upside-down house, an apt metaphor for the Goodmans’ topsy-turvy world.
Even if you have seen Next to Normal previously, there is enough that is novel about Zoetic’s rendering of this material that you are likely to be glad you spent time again with the Goodmans.
NEXT TO NORMAL, Zoetic Stage, Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Through Sunday, April 9. $60-65. 305-949-6722.