Theater Review: “Next to Normal” — More Relevant Than Ever

By David Greenham

This musical succeeds, at least in part, because it dares to shine a light on parts of our lives that we don’t like to talk about.

Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed and choreographed by Pascale Florestal, voice and music direction by Katie Bickford. Scenic design by Eric D. Diaz. Lighting by Michael Clark Wonson. Costumes by Kiara Escalera. Sound by James Cannon. Properties by Lauren Corcuera. Produced by Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective. Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through June 30.

Ricardo “Ricky” Holguin and Sherée Marcelle in Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective’s production of Next to Normal. Photo: Maggie Hall

Diana (Sherée Marcelle) is the matriarch of her suburban clan. Her son Gabe (Diego Cintrón) strikes people as an aloof mystery. Husband Dan (Anthony Pires Jr.) loves Diana, but he has trouble expressing his feelings. Their daughter Natalie (Cortlandt Barrett) is an overachieving, bookish high schooler with lots of attitude. Diana summarizes her loved ones this way: “They’re the perfect loving family, so adoring. And I love them every day of every week. So, my son’s a little shit, my husband’s boring, and my daughter, though a genius, is a freak.”

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal is not content to be about what could be the domestic woes of any middle-class family. Instead, their driving 2009 Pulitzer- and Tony–award winning rock musical takes a bold dive into the fallout posed by Diana’s bipolar disorder, exploring themes of depression, grief, fear, and thoughts of giving up.

The tale begins in medias res, with Diana’s chaotic and unpredictable moods. As they watch her spread slices of bread across the hallway floor to make lunch sandwiches for the family, Natalie panics and Dan knows it’s time for professional help. Diana’s caregivers, Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine (both played by Ricardo “Ricky” Holguin), underline the inadequate state of our country’s efforts to address mental illness. “The best we can do is put names on a collection of symptoms,” Madden confesses.

Sherée Marcelle in Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective’s production of Next to Normal. Photo: Maggie Hall

He prescribes Diana drugs as the company sings, “Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax, Depakote, Klonopin, Ambien, Prozac, Ativan calms me when I see the bills. These are a few of my favorite pills.” Naturally, the prescriptions are followed by nasty side effects. A jaunty chant sardonically promises “Dizziness, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction, headaches and tremors, nightmares and seizures. Diarrhea, constipation, nervous laughter, palpitations, anxiousness, anger, exhaustion, insomnia, irritability, nausea, vomiting, odd and alarming sexual feelings. OH! And one last thing: Use may be fatal.”

After several weeks of pharmaceutical treatment, Diana reports, “I don’t feel like myself. I mean, I don’t feel anything.” Dr. Madden smiles and notes, “Patient stable.”

Things don’t get much better at home. Diana is torn emotionally between Dan and Gabe as they both sing, “I am the one who knows you. I know you don’t know I am the one who cares. You say that you’re hurting. I am the one who’s always been there.” Meanwhile, Natalie has met a wonderful classmate, Henry (Dashawn McClinton), who cares for her no matter what. But dysfunctional family dynamics — compounded by Natalie’s hopelessness about her mother’s mental health challenges — prove to be too much for her. She can’t trust Henry’s kindhearted offers of sympathetic assistance. Henry professes his love for Natalie in a very Gen Z way: “I’m trying to tell you I love you. The world is at war, filled with death and disease. We dance on the edge of destruction. The globe’s getting warmer by deadly degrees… This planet is pretty much broken beyond all repair, but one thing is working if you’re standing there. Perfect for you, I could be perfect for you. I might be lazy, a loner, a bit of a stoner it’s true, but I could be perfect for you.”

Obviously, Next to Normal is not filled with the kind of songs that you will hum as you leave the theater. But the musical succeeds, at least in part, because it dares to shine a light on parts of our lives that we don’t like to talk about. Each character grapples with the inner turmoil that inevitably comes with having to deal with a loved one who is working through mental illness. Also, it helps that the cast members of this Central Square/Front Porch collaboration is so strong. All of them are powerful singers. Sherée Macrelle’s Diana carries the production with ample vocal moxie. Anthony Pires Jr. delivers as Dan, his voice providing a perfect balance of strength and vulnerability. Ricardo “Ricky” Holguin’s expressive eyes and rubbery face infuse amusement into the doctor roles. Boston Conservatory also shows off its muscle for developing talent; three of its students, Cortlandt Barrett, Diego Cintrón, and Dashawn McClinton, deliver adroit performances.

Cortlandt Barrett in Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective’s production of Next to Normal. Photo: Maggie Hall

What’s less successful is how the set and sound distract from the characters’ inner struggle. There’s a breathless, manic feel to this production, and that sometimes undermines the material’s complexity. Eric D. Diaz has come up with a colorful, multilevel set chockablock with numerous acting areas, but the space begins to feel like a bounce house in which actors are invited to jump from one spot to the next. Likewise, music director Katie Bickford has created a soundscape that, on occasion, amps itself up to the point of excessive intensity. The singers seem to be fighting with the terrific offstage band when they should be tackling the anxiety affecting their characters.

Director and choreographer Pascale Florestal keeps things moving, scooting through fast-paced twists and turns. That said, the production would greatly benefit from a few more well-framed moments of stillness, a timeout to convey sorrow. More than enough time is spent hammering (and rehammering) home the show’s frenetic frustration and anger.

This is an important topic. Central Square Theater and Front Porch should be congratulated for their interpretation, which features a very gifted nonwhite cast. It’s also worth noting that the world in 2024 is quite different than it was in 2009, when Next to Normal stormed into the Broadway spotlight. Our mental health challenges have exploded — thanks to our politics, the increasing downsides of the climate crisis, Covid, social media, and truckloads of other collective worries. It is depressing to point out that Next to Normal might be more relevant to produce now than it was years ago.

So this isn’t one of those “sit back and enjoy the show” experiences, nor should it be. Next to Normal will move you, while at the same time it will compel you to root for the family — especially Diana. It’s a demanding journey but, as the performers sing at the end, “Day after day we’ll find the will to find our way. Knowing that the darkest skies will someday see the sun. When our long night is done, there will be light.” Here’s hoping….

David Greenham is an arts and culture consultant, adjunct lecturer on Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He can be found at


  1. Judy Silvan on June 23, 2024 at 7:31 am

    I saw it last night: WOW. The acting was out of this world. The depiction of family life with grief and illness was poignant and powerful.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts