If you're a big fan of both rock musicals and spending a depressing evening watching lives torn apart by bipolar disorder, then Next to Normal is the show for you! Imagine the kids from Rent grow up, get jobs, move out to the suburbs, start families, and suffer through crippling mental illness. It's kinda like that.
But beware: The winner of three 2009 Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Next to Normal is not an easy show to watch or perform. At its February 8 opening at the Erickson Theater Off Broadway, neither the six-person cast nor I were quite up to the task. All the performances are more than competent, but nobody stands out in a show with a sometimes-complex score that screams for standout performances. It made for an uneven evening in which every time I'd written off a performer, he or she would suddenly surprise me, and every time I thought I was about to be blown away, I never was.
Beth DeVries as the bipolar mother was the most frustrating, delivering a mostly workmanlike vocal performance with a few teasingly soaring solos. The voices weren't bad—they just weren't rock voices, and rarely achieved the raw emotional resonance the score demands.
Or maybe it was just me. There were plenty of red eyes and soggy handkerchiefs in the opening-night audience. But I lost interest about half an hour before it ended.
That's not to say it's not worth the $25 price of admission. A coproduction with Contemporary Classics, Next to Normal is the third show in an ambitious season for the upstart Balagan Theater that started with a deservedly sold-out production of Avenue Q and a game if disappointing Hedwig, and ends in April with the equally challenging August: Osage County. While I didn't love Next to Normal, I admired the effort and professionalism. If you're into musicals, a Balagan subscription may well be the best value in Seattle.