The setup: Next to Normal marks the first time since Rent that a musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Interestingly, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey had written even less for the stage than had Jonathan Larson at that point.) Arizona Theatre Company mounted a production last fall, and now Mesa Encore Theatre, a company that typically crushes it on musicals, especially small and edgy ones, brings a staging by popular director Phillip Fazio (Ragtime, Proof, Grey Gardens).
The execution: Fazio experienced the luck of the draw (okay, and exercised the skill that generates his reputation) with his cast, who are all accomplished singers and actors. (This show, a rock-scored roller-coaster about a family with a bipolar mom, is not dance-y at all. I suppose it could be, but that's definitely not the intention, and I'm glad the company didn't go that way.)
Fazio's tight pacing is spot-on for this story of people in crisis. Whether Diana (Melissa Rose Modifer) is bouncing off the walls, profoundly depressed, or dreamily catatonic, the pressure remains on.
Diana's teenage daughter, Natalie, follows an arc that parallels her mother's ups and downs. Whether it's because of a genetic predisposition or the adolescent stress of finding her identity in a family in which she's been benignly neglected is a question that, as in real life, can't be immediately answered.
Katie Frederick acts and sings Natalie with heartrending verisimilitude, caustic humor, and relentless energy (even when Natalie passes out in a heap of knees and elbows). She wound up being the character I rooted for the most, and that's not necessarily a misstep in the production, because Diana is a piece of work -- the destruction her illness causes for everyone around her is a major plot point, and we watch her scale down her own hopes and dreams as the script unfolds.
Some critics have slammed Kitt's score and Yorkey's lyrics as mundane and unmemorable. They kind of are, and it is a nearly entirely sung-through show, but a) it isn't called the Pulitzer Prize for Musicals, and b) everything else about the play, especially here, surrounds and supports the score even while outshining it. It's a showcase for performers, and the whole thing is sort of the E.T. of musicals: You're being emotionally manipulated, you know you're being emotionally manipulated, you're glad about it, and ultimately it probably expands your humanity.
The verdict: Without reservation, the simplest description is that this is one of the most affecting and effective shows I've ever seen. It's a shame it runs only two weekends, so light a fire under your bad self and make plans to catch it sometime tonight through Sunday.
Next to Normal continues through Sunday, February 3, at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street. Tickets are $24 to $29 (cheaper in advance); click here to purchase or call 480-644-6500.
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