by Clark Groome
The struggles of the Goodman family as it deals with emotional and mental illness are both wrenching and uplifting. As rendered in the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal,” those struggles are the central focus of a musical that is simultaneously hard to take and hard to resist.
“Next to Normal” is receiving an energetic and thoroughly credible performance by an impressive cast and a visually arresting production at the Arden Theatre through Nov. 4.
At the core of the story is Diana Goodman (Kristine Fraelich), a wife and mother who suffers from severe bi-polar disorder. It is so severe, in fact, that her doctors (Brian Hissong in two roles) note that it is close to being schizophrenia.
Her husband, Dan (James Barry); her son, Gabe (Robert Hager); and her daughter, Natalie (Rachel Camp), make up the family that is as affected by her illness as she is.
“Next to Normal” has a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and an absolutely splendid score by Tom Kitt. This isn’t the kind of score that allows you to leave the theater whistling a nifty tune or two. Rather, it’s a score that is absolutely appropriate to and illuminating of the emotions and the situations in which the characters find themselves.
Director Terry Nolen has mounted the show in a production that features Jorge Cousineau’s stunning scenic and visual design. It is dominated by an upstage panel on which shapes and images — including before the opening and during intermission what looks like a living Rorschach test — add depth and perspective to the issues at hand. The other good designers are Alison Roberts (costumes), Thom Weaver (lighting), Daniel Perelstein (sound) and Niki Cousineau (choreography). Music Director Eric Ebbenga leads the terrific nine-piece orchestra.
The entire cast is first-rate. Kristine Fraelich brings the complex and painful emotions that dominate Diana’s existence powerfully to life. The rest of the company — Brian Hissong, James Barry, Robert Hager, Rachel Camp and Michael Doherty (Natalie’s boyfriend Henry) — joins Fraelich as part of one of the most impressive musical ensembles I’ve seen on a local stage in a very long time.
“Next to Normal” clearly deserved its Pulitzer. In the Arden production we are blessed by the combination of a powerful story told in a compelling way, a strong production and an almost flawless cast. The result is an evening of theater, both exhilarating and exhausting, that I can almost guarantee you’ll be glad you saw and won’t easily forget.
“Next to Normal” is an impressive beginning to the Arden’s 25th anniversary season.
For tickets to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Norman,” playing at the Arden Theatre through Nov. 4, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org