Mental illness. It’s not exactly the first topic one considers when writing a Broadway musical. True, it has worked well in some operas (“Lucia di Lammermoor” comes to mind). But the thought of a person living in a self-imagined universe and spiraling out of control as their family watches just doesn’t seem like a longshot to become a Broadway hit, much less a Pulitzer Prize.
Yet, “Next to Normal,” with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and a rock music score by Tom Kitt, garnered a Putitzer Prize for a musical, only the eighth time in history that a musical was considered so ground-breaking and so important as to merit the honor. Oddly, it did not pick up a Best Musical Tony in 2009, something five out of the eight Pulitzer Prize winning musicals have done. Perhaps it was the rocky score or perhaps it was just stiff competition from Jeanine Tessori (“Shrek: The Musical“) and Sir Elton John (“Billy Elliot“), the eventual winner, that edged out “Next to Normal.”
Make no mistake, though; the score and lyrics are brilliant and the subject of Diana Goodman’s mental illness is tackled almost as soon as the curtain rises. In the current production running at the Contemporary Arts Center and produced by Southern Repertory and directed by Blake Coheley, the role of Diana is played by an actress with considerable Broadway and national tour experience, Leslie Castay. Castay’s acting is impeccable and her vocals are exquisite.
Playing her over-protective and enabling husband Dan is Richard Hutton, a veteran of numerous local productions, particularly several memorable works done under the aegis of Tulane’s Summer Lyric Theatre. While the sheen on Hutton’s voice is not as silvery as it was in the past, he still holds his own with Castay and the other members of the troupe and never attempts to go toe to toe with her amazing vocals.
Gabe Goodman, the son Diana has known for almost two decades is played with incredible virtuosity by Clint Johnson, an actor whose stature is small, but whose persona and powerful voice make him a relative giant among other local musical stars. His acting chops nearly steal the show from leading actress Castay. I did say nearly.
Another big plus is New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) freshman Madison Kerth, who plays the Goodmans’ daughter Natalie. She and supportive boyfriend Henry, played by Matthew Thompson, take up a sub-plot of dealing with an out-of-control teen teetering on the tightrope of prescription medication and rebellion. Thompson’s understated performance as Henry allows Kerth’s Natalie to conflict with him in a number of ways that ramp up the tension in their relationship.
The final member of the cast is Michael Krikorian, who plays Dr. Madden, the psychiatrist given the task of bringing Diana back to reality from her foggy world. Eventually, his treatments bring her elucidation, but not before she slips back into the haze again. Krikorian rocks the score with his interpretations and his character is an important part of the book that unites the characters well.
Musical director Jefferson Turner is pitch perfect and leads his small entourage on a wondrous ride of musical highs and a number of duets and ensemble pieces. The team of scenic designer Bill Walker and lighting director Dan Zimmer is about as good as it gets in this city.
This production is nearly perfect in every way. It does justice to the original cast and reflects favorably on Aimée Hayes, Southern Rep’s artistic director. The music may take a bit getting used to, but once that adjustment is made, the emotional rollercoaster is a ride worth taking time and time again.
“Next to Normal” clearly blows the lid off mental illness and, while much more could be said about this controversial subject, what it does say is notable and enjoyable. This could very well be the best locally produced musical of the year. Extra shows have been added to keep up with the demand that has resulted in sell-outs throughout its run. Don’t miss it.
The regional premiere of “Next to Normal” runs through June 9 at the Contemporary Arts Center, Camp Street in New Orleans. Tickets prices are $35 for general admission with discounts offered for mental health professionals, students, senior citizens, etc. can be ordered over the phone at 504-525-6545 or ordered online by clicking here.