Severe mental health problems and the havoc that they wreak on a family, wouldn’t necessarily serve as my first choice for an evening’s entertainment. Fold that plot into a musical vessel and, it’s true, I start to make that face. You know, the one I make when the dentist tells me I have a cavity. Now, tell me the show has critical acclaim and I’ve just about crossed it off my list, siting I have to do the dishes that night. Despite the risky topic, theatrical format and my inexplicable knee-jerk cynicism for “award-winning” shows, Next to Normal, playing at San Jose Rep, proved a richly educational and surprisingly entertaining evening.
There’s no doubt this show has a powerful healing component and is an intensely personal cathartic journey. There’s a lot of heart and pain that went into this show and I wager those with more intimate knowledge of its topics will connect to it more deeply than I did. That being said, there were a string of potent moments that really shone and the cast was tremendously talented across the board.
While the very likeable and believable cast emoted authentically and delivered every note with seemingly perfect pitch and sentiment, and I felt for the characters, I just wasn’t able to see them as more than characters. I felt disconnected to a certain degree, unable to really relate to the situations presented. When I think about it, this certainly could be an intended effect; maybe it makes the content more palatable? Ultimately, this inability to feel more, frustrated me, and, while the performances and some of the songs were stirring, they stayed “characters” to me. I attribute my audience alienation in part to the very song-heavy structure.
In the words of the Emperor to Mozart in Amadeus, there seemed to me to be “too many notes.” Now, I know that sounds preposterous, and I have zero authority to speak on music other than what I like and don’t, but I think at times is did the sensitive topic and the production a disservice. While a beautiful, poetic, emotional ballad communicated a tender, complex moment superbly, other more conversational exchanges seemed trivialized by being put to music. The play flows much more like an opera with barely an exchange of spoken dialogue and for me that formula got stale in places and distracted me.

The musical structure worked best for me when the songs were “in the head” of the characters or transcended conversations and entered the realm of the deep subconscious. Rock, ballad, folk, standard American Musical, many genres are well represented (no easy feat to compose not to mention perform, mind you) and while I don’t downplay the complexity and probable merit of this music, I counted less than 5 songs that stood out when all was sung and done. No doubt, I would have loved Next to Normal if it had been a straight play or if the number of songs had been cut in half.
The production overall was a bit too by the brick for me too, as in any subtlety of metaphors in the set, staging, even the lighting in some cases, was tossed out and instead you were beaten over the head with the literal. A set with cracked facades and thinning layers while certainly appropriate, felt like it was trying entirely too hard and it undermined the intelligence of the audience more than a tad. Bright lights and white shirts during a particular number felt very Jesus Christ Superstar finale to me, almost mocking what had been a very poignant previous moment. Much of the technical seemed predictable which contrasted the unpredictability of the plot twists. Again, maybe that contrast was exactly what they were going for, but I certainly would have like to some less obvious choices.
As far as your venue experience, if you have an opportunity to sit in the balcony, I would definitely recommend it. There’s a huge amount of action on the vertical, which I loved, but from the third row my neck was strained from staring up for a good part of the 2 hour performance. There’s also less of a chance you’ll be blinded by reflections off medicine cabinet “mirrors’” too if you’re a bit further back and although balanced for the most part, the loudest of the songs will likely overpower you in the first third of the orchestra section. I also got a bit chilly during the second half, so bring a coat if you tend to run a bit cold.
This is a modern, ambitious, large and (I really can’t stress this enough) important artistic piece that explores a topic that is largely ignored and while not my favorite, it is I feel, a very good production. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a unique musical that brings to light some of the darkest, most personal struggles a family could ever have to deal with in a brave, creative and informative way. Next to Normal plays through February 3rd at the San Jose Rep in Downtown San Jose.

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