Next to Normal sells out to emotional audiences


Photo courtesy of Samantha Saunders

“Next to Normal” is the first production in Pitt Stages’ Mainstage 2019-2020 season.

By Matthew Monroy, Staff Writer

The set of “Next to Normal” is fairly minimalistic. But while the immaculate white walls lining the stage might indicate a straightforward and relaxed production, the musical is anything but.

“Next to Normal,” the first production in Pitt Stages’ Mainstage 2019-2020 season, opened on Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theater and will run through Oct. 13. The now sold-out show is an American rock musical that examines the lives of the Goodman family as the mother, Diana (Meg Pryor), struggles with bipolar disorder. The show depicts the destructive effects her mental illness has on the rest of the family as Diana’s husband, Dan (Ricardo Vila-Roger), and daughter, Natalie (Isabel Descutner), grapple with Diana’s fluctuating behavior and past trauma.

The show is directed by Richard E. Rauh Teaching Artist-in-Residence Niffer Clarke, who directed the Pitt Stages production of “Into the Woods” in spring 2019. A prolific actor and musician herself, Clarke has performed both regionally and in New York in addition to releasing a solo album and touring with multiple bands.

When it came to directing “Next to Normal,” Clarke said she found meaning in the show’s topical themes.

“‘Next to Normal’ is significant in that it brings issues out of the shadows. One out of five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year,” Clarke said via email. 

The musical, written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt, has roots that run all the way back to 1998. Yorkey first conceived of the show as a short sketch in a musical theater workshop that he and Kitt were a part of.

Over the years, “Next to Normal” grew into a fully formed musical and began playing in small theaters in the early 2000s, receiving high praise and attention from critics that helped catapult it to Broadway in 2009. When the show’s Broadway run ended in 2011, its accolades were impressive — three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The show is told from Diana’s point of view and, as a result, is punctuated by intermittent bursts of chaos that coordinate with her volatile mind, such as during a scene between Diana and her physician, Dr. Madden (Pedar Garred). Dr. Madden,  a proficient and concerned doctor, often assumes glamorous roles in Diana’s mind. In these moments, Dr. Madden’s monotone speech is broken up by random disruptions in which he becomes Dr. Fine, roaring out rock song lyrics and suggestively dancing as flashing lights and a wailing guitar fills the air.

The show’s perspective grants the audience an intimate view into Diana’s mind. As a result, many aspects of the show are entirely fictional, existing only in Diana’s imagination. However, Clarke said that she made a point to tone down some of the distracting elements of the script in favor of a more emotional production.

“I … shy away from ‘distractions’ or going for comedic or over-the-top elements that take us out of the reality of the storytelling,” Clarke said via email. “For me, the story is about the relationships in this piece. Keeping it authentic and honest.”

Although “Next to Normal”’s storytelling is at times random and jarring, the performances behind the Goodman family members ground the plot in a sense of ultra realism. Diana is a wildly unpredictable creature, but Pryor balances this with a very emotional performance. Underneath every wild song and dancing there is a palpable sense of sadness. In the song “You Don’t Know,” Diana sings straight to her husband, challenging him after he tries to relate to her situation. Pryor brings an intensity to the scene as she conveys the realities of living with a mental illness.

The two other members of the Goodman family deliver equally as intense performances in different ways. Vila-Roger plays Dan’s physicality as marked by weariness — all of his movements seems to be an attempt to hide the sadness he feels inside. Isabel Descutner attracts sympathy with her performance as Natalie, a high school girl trying to hide her mother’s instability from her boyfriend, Henry (Dennis Sen).

“Next to Normal”’s technical elements play a key role in highlighting the show’s emotional elements. The lighting in the show is both chaotic and reassuring, directing and distracting the audience’s attention depending on Diane’s mental state. For example, when all the characters are introduced in the beginning of the show, the lights first spotlight each one of them, but quickly begin sporadically flashing around the stage, matching Diana’s inability to control her relationships.

“Next to Normal”’s lighting designer, TJ Hays, a sophomore theatre arts major, said striking the right balance between creating a well-lit set while elevating the show’s powerful moments was a difficult task.

“The lighting had to look cool and make you feel something, but it should not take away from the story that is being told,” Hays said via email. “The lighting is only supplementary to the story that the actors, costumes, set and props are telling.”

Clarke’s vision for staging stayed true to the original Broadway production, with the entirety of the stage acting as the Goodman’s house. The design of the house was modern and minimalistic — clean white surfaces, a dinner table that slid into its backing wall when not needed and a pill cabinet that was seamlessly constructed into a wall.

“Next to Normal”’s depiction of the house marks the one major visual difference between the Broadway production and Clarke’s. In the former, the Goodman’s house was sparsely designed and rendered only by a rough set of metal scaffolding. However, Clarke’s production presents a fully realized version of a house, increasing the realism of the story.

The clean-cut exterior of the set also contrasts with its inhabitant’s frayed relationships. Theatre arts professor Dr. Reza Mirsajadi, “Next to Normal”’s dramaturg, complemented the production’s set design team in creating a well-balanced set.

“I … think the Goodmans’ home plays a much bigger role in the Pitt production,” he said via email. “The design team did a beautiful job with that, combining a super modern house with an abstract interpretation of one.”

Throughout Next to Normal’s two-and-a-half hour runtime sniffling could be heard across the audience. The show’s final numbers brought the emotion to a climax as Diane struggled to understand herself amidst her mental health issues.

For Clarke, the show is a way to direct the audience’s attention to the dysfunction and need for communication that can arise when dealing with a loved one’s hidden mental health issues. 

“‘Next to Normal’ helps us to see that — we see ourselves, our family, our friends and neighbors in these characters,” she said. “It reminds us that we need to talk, ask for help — and not hide.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the differences between the characters of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, who are played by the same actor.