Next to Normal at the Donmar Warehouse review: Broadway musical about grief and depression treads a fine line

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

Wonderfully sung and staged, this show detailing the effects of grief and mental illness on an ordinary American family comes from the “relentless” school of Broadway musical.

More than 37 rock numbers, ballads and reprises are packed into two hours, all of them catchily scored by Tom Kitt and given witty lyrics by Brian Yorkey. And all are given the full-throated, eyes-aloft, maximum-emotion treatment.

Next to Normal won a Pulitzer and three Tony Awards in New York in 2010, and Michael Longhurst’s London premiere is led from the front by Broadway stalwart Caissie Levy, who has a big, steely voice and a warm personality to match. If the show weren’t also complex, sardonic and wary of looming cliché, it might be too much.

Levy’s Diana Goodman is, it says here, a “suburban wife and mother” whose hectic, sitcom-ish existence spirals out of control during the first number, Just Another Day. Diana has bipolar disorder and this – along with the hidden loss that fuels it – blights her life and the lives of her husband Dan (Jamie Parker) and daughter Natalie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox).

It’s hard to talk about the plot without spoilers, but suffice to say that a character called Gabe, endowed with an almost satanic creepiness by Jack Wolfe, haunts the action, and sings one of the show’s most strident and chilling numbers, I’m Alive.

Chloe Lamford creates the kind of kitchen set that once looked desirable but now looks bog-standard (Marc Brenner)
Chloe Lamford creates the kind of kitchen set that once looked desirable but now looks bog-standard (Marc Brenner)

Kitt and Yorkey’s decision to write about mental health implicitly rebukes those who think musicals can’t be serious. Their approach is compassionate, thoughtful, but also witty, showing us the fantasies Diana projects on her doctors (both played with extravagant gusto by Trevor Dion Nicholas). Healthcare has been weaponised by conspiracy theorists since the show was written but it somehow navigates Diana’s choices – drugs, ECT or potentially-suicidal refusal of treatment – without scaring the horses.

Longhurst’s production powers forward, on the sort of kitchen set (by Chloe Lamford) that once looked desirable but now looks bog-standard. The six-strong band is periodically revealed and veiled by opaque screens above the action. There is something similarly mechanical in the way Diana’s life is revealed to her, and the way it is mirrored by her daughter.

Parker’s Dan is a model of patient adoration, his fragile high notes when singing an expression of his sensitivity. (Although as Diana says, he is also boring). As gifted musician Natalie, Worthington-Cox unleashes a splendid singing voice but the script and score keep her in a state of twitchy, needy resentment, character-wise. Natalie’s relationship with adoring pothead Henry (Jack Ofrecio) offers a too-neat parallel with Diana and Dan. Indeed, the two couples share a couple of confrontational duets.

I expected everyone to hug and learn at the end, like they do in sitcoms. Actually the creators opt for something much more bittersweet and interesting, which lifted my appreciation of the whole show. Caissie Levy – who originated the role of Elsa in Frozen on Broadway – is terrific in it, and she has a fine supporting cast.

The Donmar could have been designed for this domestic chamber musical. The final song, Light, brings the house down. I’m never sure if Broadway’s impassioned style of performance will work in London. This time, it does.

Donmar Warehouse, to October 7;