One Girl, Two Cities

Guest Review: Next to Normal at Yellow Tree Theatre

next to normal The first time I saw Next to Normal was through Bloomington Civic Theatre and it hit home. Hard. (Full review here.) While it’s no excuse, I didn’t know if I would have it in me again to review it – seeing the show was challenging enough. So I enlisted the help of my friend Sara at Writing With Bangles because I knew she would provide a thoughtful and interesting review. I was right, and I can’t thank her enough for taking the time to share her thoughts.

Sara and I connected shortly after Minnesota Blog Con last year, and since then, hers has been one of my favorite blogs to read. No matter what she writes about, I always appreciate her insight in each post. Make sure to check out her blog, like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


Awhile back, Laura asked if I wanted to go to a play with her. She told me the name and gave this description: “It’s a musical about a crazy mom.”

I don’t know if I could have answered faster. Of course I want to see that. I like musicals. I’m a mom.And I’m certainly crazy.

Then she mentioned that it’s a pretty intense show and that Kleenex will be needed.

Well, considering my kids make me cry daily, I figured I’d be ok. I gladly accepted the invite and made sure to stuff some extra tissues into my purse.

Photo by Sara from Writing With Bangles

Photo by Sara

The show, “Next to Normal,” was at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo and this was my first visit. I was impressed the moment we walked in. The lobby is softly lit, with space to gather and talk while enjoying refreshments. It’s comfortable and intimate, the perfect place to leave the outside world behind and enter the world of the theatre.

“Next to Normal” is a powerful play about depression, grief, anxiety, drug abuse, suicide and the secrets that have the potential to tear apart a family. But don’t let that scare you off–while the darkness is there, the underlying theme is hope. “Next to Normal” was a very successful Broadway musical; it won three Tonys and even a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

yellow tree sara 1

Photo by Sara

The play follows the mom (Diana) and her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the various treatments she tries. But her family’s struggle is not forgotten. An important point is made early on: depression does not just affect one person, it affects all who love her. Near the beginning of the musical you discover the source of Diana’s depression is a death from long ago with which she hasn’t dealt. Her attempts to ignore the pain and pretend all is perfect has long-lasting ramifications for her…and the rest of her family.

The dad, Dan, is ever supportive, yet naïve. Or, rather, hopeful. He hopes for the best throughout each treatment, desperately clinging to the woman he knew before the event that changed their lives. As Diana lives in the bipolar world and Dan tries to bring her back, lost is their daughter, Natalie. She tries to survive by being an overachiever (burying herself in her studies and music as a way to leave her family behind) and, when that fails, she turns to drugs–specifically her mother’s prescription drugs.

Photo by Sara from Writing With Bangles

Photo by Sara

The casting is about as perfect as I’ve ever seen. Jessica Lind Peterson (Diana) perfectly captures the insanity of bipolar disorder. She balances the mania with the depression and during the segment about using pharmaceuticals to treat this disease, she had the empty look in her eyes often associated with over-medicating. Jeremiah Gamble plays the ever-supportive and hopeful husband and Libby Anderson the angry, sarcastic, pained daughter. Grant Sorenson plays Henry, a classmate of Natalie’s that has a big influence on her throughout the play.

But my favorite was Lucas Wells.

One of my favorite aspects of the musical is the personification of grief and depression. Without giving away a major plot point I’ll just say that giving these intense feelings a physical face and voice (Lucas Wells) is very effective. Depression isn’t just a “feeling” during the play, it is a person. Who says things like:

I am more than memory
I am what might be, I am mystery

I feed on the fear that’s behind your eyes

’cause if you don’t grieve me; you won’t leave me behind
(“I’m Alive”)

And (as sung beautifully with Diana’s husband, Dan):

I am the one who knows you
I am the one who cares
I am the one who’s always been there
I am the one who’s helped you
(“I Am the One”)

“Next to Normal” brings depression alive in a way I hadn’t seen before. Depression is hard to explain to people who have not experienced it. I know because this is something that I’ve struggled with for over 20 years. Along with giving depression a physical presence on stage, these words as sung by Diana in trying to explain to her husband, also do a good job.

Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head?
Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?
It’s like living on a cliffside not knowing when you’ll dive.
Do you know, do you know what’s it’s like to die alive?
When the world that once had color fades to white and gray and black
When tomorrow terrifies you, but you’ll die if you look back.

The sensation that you’re screaming, but you never make a sound.
Or the feeling that you’re falling, but you never hit the ground.

If it gets me it will kill me, but I don’t know what I’ve done.
(“You Don’t Know”)

It also dives into the issue of grief and how keeping things buried can lead to more misery. This was another area that hit close to home as my father died when I was younger and I spent a decade trying various ways to avoid dealing with the pain (alcohol, drugs, etc). Eventually I was forced to grieve and come to terms with the pain that was holding me hostage.

Make up your mind to live stronger now
Make up your mind let the truth be revealed
Admit what you’ve lost and live with the cost
At times it does hurt to be healed.

If you tell me the story you own it.

If you don’t, you keep it hidden.

It owns you.

The more you hold onto something you’ve lost the more you fear losing it. 
(“Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling”)

This musical will have you tapping your foot along with the music one minute and laughing the next, right before you are dabbing your teary eyes. Laura was certainly right, make sure you have some tissues. You will need them. An emotional journey well worth the trip.

Next to Normal is showing now through May 17. Head to Yellow Tree’s Facebook page to check out their trailer. Tickets prices range from $18-25 and can be purchased online.

6 thoughts on “Guest Review: Next to Normal at Yellow Tree Theatre

  1. Beth

    This is a great review and sounds like a worthwhile musical to see – I think it’s awesome that someone chose to tackle a very complex and important issue we’re afraid to really talk about and bring it to life on stage – more people need to talk about depression and I think from the sounds of it, people really need to see this show! Thanks Sara for your honest thoughts on it!

    1. Laura VanZandt Post author

      I know what you mean, Beth. It’s a tough topic for sure and while it’s pretty raw, the musical handles it with a lot of grace. I’m so appreciative of Sara sharing her personal viewpoint and agree that people should talk about these topics more.

    2. Sara

      Thanks Beth! It’s a topic that doesn’t get discussed a lot & there’s a lot of shame on the people who deal with this–whether for themselves or a loved one. The way depression is an actual character in the play makes it more accessible for people to understand. And seriously, the music is amazing. It’s really worth it if you decide to go. 🙂

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