by CHRISTINE SARKES SASSEVILLE
Next to Normal, winner of three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a rousing rock musical that explores mental illness, bipolar disorder, teenage angst, grief and suburban family dysfunction. Set to powerful lyrics and music, the musical balances these difficult and often uncomfortable topics with humor, humanity and raw honesty. Standout vocals by Tom Reed (Henry), Brittany Bradford (Natalie Goodman), and Ricardo Vazquez (Gabriel Goodman) and powerful dramatic performances by Thomas Jones II and Aditi Kapil, as Dan and Diana Goodman, round out this must-see performance at the Mixed Blood Theatre.
Opening the theatre’s 37th season, Next to Normal, directed by Jack Reuler, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, follows the story of a mother who struggles with worsening bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. Aditi Kapil plays the mother and wife with ironic self-awareness and honesty. The husband, who loves and supports her through seemingly endless treatments, is played with compassion and hopeful optimism by Ivey Award winner Thomas Jones II. Meanwhile, their neglected daughter, Natalie (Brittany Bradford), must cope with her own anger over the family’s dysfunction, a self-destructive need to escape the pain of dealing with her mother’s mental illness, a growing romance with the high school stoner and her own worries that she is doomed to suffer a similar fate. In the end, the family embarks on a hopeful journey of healing that may not be normal but may be “Next to Normal” in the show’s signature song. Another soaring ballad, “I’m Alive,” sung skillfully by Ricardo Vazquez, represents both the hold grief and mental illness have on family, while reminding them of the powerful life force that keeps them moving toward recovery. Technical Director Joe Stanley and Musical Director Jason Hansen deserve special mention for the clever use of props and the powerhouse music that support the cast. I found the use of video graphics on the main stage screen a bit distracting from the performances, but it is a minor complaint.
Take advantage of Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality program, which offers free general admission with seating beginning two hours before show time and is first-come, first-served. At least half of the seats per performance are reserved for no-cost guaranteed admission. After every performance, Mixed Blood offers a free forum, where audience members and staff hold post-show conversations. At the Sunday Salons (following each Sunday matinée), panels of specialists lead the discussion.
Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression and other mental illness are treatable, medical conditions. If you or a family member has a mental illness, you are not alone. Call NAMI Minnesota for eduction, support and hope. National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, 651-645-2948 or 1-888-NAMI-HELPS. www.namihelps.org
Next to Normal, October 5-November 11, 2012, Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis. Tickets: $0-First come, first-served; $20-guaranteed admission. Box office: 612-338-6131 or www.mixedblood.com