Zach's staging of the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey work Next to Normal is stunning -- but not in the usual reviewer-speak meaning of the word. The intensity of the emotion, the huge volume of sound, the zig-zag of florescent lighting on the back walls of the set and above all the pitiless focus upon the mental illness of a suburban wife and mother -- all of these foster a numbness of mind that leaves you feeling as if you had swallowed a 200 mg capsule of Thorazine at the opening of the show.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. It shows that the Zach succeeds in setting the opera's message deep into the brain,down there where the limbic system controls emotion, memory and cognition. For a musical work about grief, disorientation and pharmacology, that's exactly the intention.
The Pulitzer committee that awarded the New York production of Next to Normal the drama prize for 2010 called it "a powerful rock musical . . . . that expands the scope of subject matter for musicals." My experience of the Zach production -- my trip along with housewife Diana and her family into her hell -- left me feeling that "rock musical" was an inadequate term for the evening. It isn't "rock" in the Elvis Presley sense or even the Pink Floyd sense, and although it was told almost entirely in sound and song, one couldn't really classify it as corresponding to most of the conventions of most American musical theatre. The score and story are complex and contemporary, all too relevant to our American experience. Let's be frank: let's call it a contemporary opera, even though that designation might be a drag at the box office.