When I was asked to review Trustus Theatre’s first show of the season, Next to Normal, I was hesitant. I don’t usually like musicals. It seems like the vast majority that are being launched on Broadway nowadays are pure fluff – adaptations of 80’s and 90’s movies hoping to bank on an easily entertained populace’s desire for nostalgia and escapism. But then there was this little gem that won the Tony for Best Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Book by Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (Book and Lyrics). It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama – an uncommon honor for a musical. “What am I in for?” I wondered.
The story of a family being ripped apart by mental illness seems an unlikely subject for a musical, which is one of the reasons this one works so well. The play opens on what appears to be a typical morning with Diana Goodman (played by Vicky Saye Henderson) preparing lunches for her husband, daughter, and son, and devolves into her throwing sandwiches on the floor. Diana is not well. She suffers from severe bipolar disorder, accompanied by hallucinations. In the next few weeks, Diana visits her psychotherapist (played by Terrance Henderson) who adjusts and readjusts her meds until she is mentally numb, but deemed “stable”. But she misses her highs and lows…making her something less than the most cooperative patient.
This show’s power comes from the twisted but strong ties between the characters. Dan (Paul Kaufmann) loves Diana, but wonders who is crazier: her for her illness, or him for staying with her? Natalie (Elisabeth Baker) is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play. She is struggling to be the perfect daughter, but gets lost in competition with her brother (the song “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl”), while living with the very real fear that her mother’s illness might be lurking somewhere in her DNA as well. Fortunately, she has found a friend in her new love, Henry (played by Chase W. Nelson) whose struggle to keep her out of trouble is a haunting mirror image of the struggle between Dan and Diana. I won’t give any spoilers here, but rest assured, the plot twists in surprising and heartbreaking ways that will leave you agog.
The entire cast is simply terrific. Vicky Saye Henderson’s vocal chops are on perfect display here, and Paul Kaufmann’s numbers will make you tear up. Terrance Henderson’s voice is powerful and lush, and he gives great dimension to what could easily have ended up being a throwaway role. It’s exciting to see terrific young talent cropping up in Elisabeth Baker, Andy Bell, and Chase W. Nelson – all relative newcomers to the Trustus stage. I look forward to seeing more from them.
Next to Normal, directed by Chad Henderson, is the type of show Trustus does best. They have taken an amazing script, combined it with a small but amazing cast, and put it on a simple but well-designed set. Musical Director Tom Beard’s orchestra is subtle and effective. The music melds with the story seamlessly. Spectacle and shows with huge casts have never been the ideal for such a small stage, and this one doesn’t need it. This show is powerful…spine-tinglingly so. This is a beautifully challenging piece of theatre that needed to be created, and demands to be seen.
You should see this show. Yes…you. Even if you don’t like musicals, and especially if you or anyone you love has been affected by mental illness. You will leave the theatre profoundly affected.
This is the first show without Jim and Kay Thigpen at the helm (Happy Retirement!), and proof that you can still put your trust in Trustus.
~ Jillian Owens
Next to Normal runs at Trustus Theatre through Sat. Sept. 29th; contact the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.