When Dear Evan Hansen opened in the West End, just a couple of years after its Broadway opening, it brought with it a sense that musicals didn’t have to be all jazz hands and dance breaks. But over a decade earlier, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning Next To Normal had already proved that themes of mental health, grief, and drug abuse could be explored in a musical.
For a long time the UK has patiently been waiting for it to cross the Atlantic, and now Next to Normal has finally arrived with a refreshed production directed by Michael Longhurst, at the Donmar Warehouse.
Next to Normal focusses on Diana, a suburban mom, who is struggling with bipolar disorder. The effects of Diana’s illness on her husband and children are profound, and often the treatment prescribed has even more devastating consequences.
Brian Yorkey’s book is deftly constructed, and trying to describe the plot runs the risk of either over-simplifying or over-complicating matters. Either way, this musical’s core themes (which also include suicide and depression) all sound rather bleak, and make no mistake, it is. Yet when actually confronted with it on stage, the audience feel wrapped up in the hope each member of this family still clings on to.
Tom Kitt’s soaring score certainly helps, and musical director Nick Barstow leads a talented band that makes every note hit deep. The mainly rock opera style numbers (though there’s the odd ballad, and even a touch of country) build on and emphasise the storytelling.
Longhurst’s production of Next to Normal is something very special indeed and casting director Anna Cooper scores a double hat trick, because the amount of talent on display here is astounding.
Caissie Levy leads the six strong cast in a staggeringly heartfelt performance. As another round of numbing medication fails to offer Diana any hope, the song ‘I Miss The Mountains’ hints at how Diana would rather feel pain than nothing at all, Levy takes the audience’s breath away with this, just one of many powerful vocal performances.
Husband, Dan faces many challenges and Jamie Parker navigates the character’s journey with precision as does the perfectly cast Trevor Dion Nicholas, who plays two of the doctors that treats Diana.
Alongside the main narrative is a secondary story about the daughter in the family, Natalie, her transformation from straight-A student to recreational drug user and the support she receives from relatively new boyfriend, Henry. Eleanor Worthington-Cox radiates teenage angst while Jack Ofrecio is a charming and supportive Henry.
Gabe, the son of the family, has a trickier role to describe without giving away spoilers. But what can be said is that Jack Wolfe gives possibly the best performance you’ll see on stage this year. Vocally, Wolfe excels with numbers like ‘I’m Alive’ and the chilling ‘There’s a World’. Delivered with skill and nuance, every move Wolfe makes, every glance, and every reaction perfectly brings this character to life.
Chloe Lamford’s gorgeous and practical set design sees a Scandi-style kitchen as the centrepiece, a modern style for a very modern twist on the kitchen sink drama. The band are positioned above, behind screens that open and close to create different settings, while also allowing the use of video projection to further accentuate Diana’s state of mind.
The themes of this musical are not easy to navigate, but Next To Normal does an incredible job of considerately and sensitively opening up the conversation on Bipolar disorder, and how, as one of the songs mentions, the cure can be worse than the symptoms.
This may be the musical that paved the way for shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home, but it stands apart for its unwavering commitment to telling a truthful and honest story, no matter what. It’s been a long fifteen years, but it’s been worth the wait as this emotionally charged production of Next to Normal is an absolute triumph that deserves, and needs, a longer run than is currently scheduled.
Next To Normal is at Donmar Warehouse until 7th October 2023