Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Next to Normal
The story is certainly not a typical one for a musical. It's about a family that's trying to hold itself together while dealing with the mother's mental illness. It's pretty clear from the outset that she has delusions or hallucinations. Does she have schizophrenia, or is she manic-depressive or bipolar (whichever term you prefer)? Has she always been that way, or was there one event that made her snap and she never has been able to recover from it?
Not only is the diagnosis of mental illness not always definitive, the treatment of it is even less so. We follow this woman and her family through psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and a more radical therapy. Does any of it help? The mental health professionals here, although they have the best intentions, don't come off looking too good. But to be fair, some illnesses are incurable.
Some of the songs are apposite, with lines like "I'm no sociopath, I'm no Sylvia Plath, I ain't no Frances Farmer..." That last name is for the cognoscenti. The catchiest song, "I Am the One," is ruined for me by the repeated "yeah, yeah, yeah"s. It worked for the Beatles, but not here. The music by Tom Kitt is mostly forgettable, but the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are mostly quite good.
Despite my reservations about the music, the show succeeds admirably. It grabs you from the beginning and doesn't let you go until the closing number (which is a little too optimistic, if you ask me). It also offers the seven actors a great opportunity to demonstrate how good they can be.
Wendy Barker as the mother gives a spectacular performance, almost certainly the best of her career. It's a very demanding role and she knocks it out of the park. The younger members of the cast, Madison Rose, Jonathan Cordova, and Gabriel Olivares, all do excellent work. Ron Gallegos as the psychiatrist and Jessica Haynes as the psychopharmacologist are also fine. Giacomo Zafarano does not look very comfortable on stage, but it's acceptable for him to act that way in the role of the put-upon father. All of the actors do well with the vocals.
Robb Anthony Sisneros, one of Albuquerque's best directors of musicals, put together the outstanding cast and crew and turned this into a "don't miss" production. Likewise, music director Colin Burdge assembled a fine set of musicians. It's a treat to have live music nowadays. Sound design by Vincent Montoya is wonderful; I could understand every word. The set by Joey Sauthoff is simple but effective, and lighting by Lucas Zuniga is very good, too.
Musical Theatre Southwest performs in a small space, and their shows almost always sell out, so I recommend not to wait before getting tickets for Next to Normal. Maybe it's not what you expect of a musical, but that's what makes it worth seeing.
Next to Normal runs through October 21, 2023, at Musical Theatre Southwest, 6320 Domingo Rd NE B, Albuquerque NM. For tickets and information, please visit mtsabq.org.