Sunday, October 25, 2009

REVIEW: next to normal

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The most unexpected and exciting musical of last season, next to normal, opened to critical acclaim for a myriad of reasons, all of them valid. Most critics hailed its revision - the show opened to enthusiastic but tempered reviews last year at 2nd Stage - as basically creating a new show from a decent framework. (Not having seen the original incarnation, I can't speak to that). The unexpected comes from the show's topic, a family dealing with a mother's bipolar disorder and profound depression. Did anyone expect to ever see a show about psychotherapy, electric shock therapy, prescription drug abuse and OCD? And did anyone who might have thought it possible also believe that in the course of two plus hours, you'd cry about it AND laugh about it? Probably not. And some of the biggest huzzahs of last season came for the cast of the show, each one giving spectacular full bodied performances. The biggest, and most deserving praise, though, came to the leading lady, Alice Ripley, who knows this is the role of a lifetime (in a career full of such roles) and gave last season's best musical performance by far, earning her the Tony Award.

The critics hailed the bold variety of musical styles in this nearly sung-through musical by Broadway newcomers Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics). It is perhaps this newness to the main stream, and the accompanying "we-have-nothing-to-lose-so-let's-just-go-for-it" euphoria of a first time that allows the show to be so bold. Where other newbies have been too cautious, these writers are unafraid of anything it would seem. The utter lack of restraint combined with a sharp editorial eye allows the themes and ideas of Yorkey's book to be simultaneously exciting/edgy and powerfully emotional/accessible. A rock score throughout, Kitt and Yorkey also venture into some jazz, classical, country, pop, and even a little dab of traditional Broadway. Not to mislead here, they are not throwing everything they know into one show; each musical style completely fits the exact moment it is used. And within these various stylings, one never gets the feeling of a pastiche score (like Starlight Express or Joseph…). No, each musical style is so specific to the moment that each is treated like a score of its own - complex when it needs to be, simple at other times, but always interesting to listen to, and always adding to the emotion of the piece. Perhaps best of all is the fact that for all of this emotional guidance, one never feels manipulated or like you've been there, done that. This is a score that will bear repeated listening and really earned the Tony it got, and a show that will likely become richer with more viewings. After my fifth time this weekend, all I can say is it got me again, and in places different from the other times. Not many shows do that.

Right from the start, the musical numbers (not listed in the Playbill, likely so that you aren't searching for "where we are" during the show) reach right off the stage, grab you and pull you into the story. "Just Another Day" starts the ball rolling with a scene that starts us off with a typical family getting ready for the day, but one that as the "typical" aspects become fewer, we realize is both normal AND next to normal. These people could be us or a neighbor - regular on the outside, deeply troubled on the inside. The "problem" becomes more clear in the funny-turns-frightening-turns sad number, "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I," a scene where the family becomes background (and backup) to Diana, a mother battling severe depression and bipolar disorder, barely holding on through the cornucopia of medications prescribed by her physician. There is the heartbreaking "You Don't Know," which articulates the frustration of the ill when people try to understand the not understandable, the powerful trio of father, mother, son in the unifying "I Am the One," and the rocking tribute to self, "I'm Alive." Central to the nearly forgotten daughter is the extremely powerful, catchy and profoundly true "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," a song specific to the situation, but universal for any sibling who might have felt in another's shadow no matter what. Other numbers provide opportunities for bigger themes and what feel like huge production numbers with a cast of six or less, like "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling," and the moving "Song of Forgetting." Balancing all of this bombast are singularly quiet moments that sear in your mind, like "I Dreamed a Dance." And, as one might expect from such an amazing score, the closing number, "Light," captures the moment, sums up the piece and sends you out exhilarated and moved.

Sergio Trujillo and Michael Greif's subtle but always meaningful musical staging and direction allow us the luxury of attending both a big Broadway musical - what dancing there is makes certain numbers feel like all out production numbers - and an intimate chamber piece. Like the book and score, everything is carefully assembled, but never feels heavy-handed, manipulative or anything less than natural. Greif's staging is both utilitarian on the surface and fraught with meaning below. The actors, not "in a scene" often move about the "house" in the dark, moving things, prepping for the next scene or whatever, and it is thoroughly in character. The set pieces are moved by the characters, and in manners that are keeping with the moment - when the marriage is strong, the parents both move the dining table into view, when things fall apart one person does it. Even resetting props becomes an exercise in characterization - often the mother, slowly decaying, creates a physical mess of things, which the husband cleans up. In short, there is such economy of motion that every single movement becomes a part of the action and the underlying meaning of the piece.

Mark Wendland's multi-level, multi-compartmental set works wonders. Its metal construction supports the orchestra which appears to surround the action, holds the majority of Kevin Adams' lighting instruments, does triple duty as it gives the show a modern/edgy/rock concert feel, while it becomes a compartmentalized home where every member of the family has safe havens and zones of uneasiness, while the compartments become a separate part of the mother's troubled brain, as she fights for control by literally compartmentalizing each aspect of her life. Adams' lighting does similar multiple duty - rock musical feel, combined with realistic lighting for "real life," and fantastical lighting that heighten the unreality of each mental episode. Even Jeff Mashie's street clothes costumes take on meaning as Diana gets more covered up in complicated wraps and then to less as her treatment leaves her more bare and vulnerable, or like how the brother, often a catalyst for tensions in the family, wears similarly colored shirts to the person or persons he is effecting. Like any truly great musical, the staging and technical aspects add layers to the art of the book and score subtly but pregnant with meaning well beyond the text.

With only six members, it may seem like major hyperbole to say that this cast represents the best of the entire musical season, but it is nevertheless true. With no room for a weak link, the cast has truly become one, feeding off of each other to present as best they can a difficult but clearly meaningful for them piece.

Louis Hobson, with barely a change in look manages to pull of playing BOTH of Diana's doctors. He is so good that I am willing to bet that each night people wonder why both characters didn't take a bow. His voice is powerful and blends beautifully with whomever he is singing. As the doctor, you can understand just how much harmonizing and emoting he must do throughout the evening. He also has the hardest sell of the evening - convincing a desperate family to allow for drastic treatment, electroshock therapy, and he does so with a sincere conviction. The other supporting role, played by Adam Chanler-Berat, is that of Henry, the stoner/artist/voice of reason boyfriend of the daughter Natalie. Largely, his role is to keep Natalie on course and to support her, while the rest of the family unwittingly ignores her. Chanler-Berat has the perfect wide-eyed dopiness that endears such a character, flaws and all, to the audience. His sincerity, glib, comic timing, and awkward demeanor play as both realistic teen and warm best friend. He makes Henry believable as both the guy most of us would ignore and the guy all of us wish we knew better. His moments with Natalie are as sweet and meaningful as parallel moments between husband and wife.

Together with him, Jennifer Damiano, who plays daughter Natalie, they create a picture that is part optimism for the future and part "this is what could have been" for the parents. Damiano, possessed with a powerful voice, gives a largely subtle performance, where a lesser actress might play all of the character's emotional cards full out. The result is a teen angst that doesn't repel us for its overwrought emotions and bitchy behavior, but rather draws us in as we recall feeling the same lack of respect, understanding and utter frustration of being a second fiddle in a three person family her or in life in general that all teens feel. She really lets loose in the show's best number, "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," where she pleads for understanding from her boyfriend and a moment of attention from her mother.

Among Broadway's new generation of rising stars is Aaron Tveit; here he really comes of age as an actor and singer, playing the difficult role of favorite son, who one parent has forgotten and the other can’t let go of. As Gabe, Tveit oozes the confidence and charisma of the perfect son - completely in tune with the parents and offering them no reason to every worry about him - and the guy in school who has it all - smart, athletic, talented and amazingly good-looking. Of course, his role takes on a completely different meaning when it is revealed that he is actually a figment of his mother's unhealthy imagination; Gabe died as an infant. Tveit's charm and charisma eventually give way to uncertainty. Is he a good thing? Or is he destroying what is left of his family? That he can make us all feel that way in a few scenes is testament to his performance, and his vocals seal the deal. What a voice!

Jersey Boys' J. Robert Spencer is Dan, the beleaguered husband, who is fighting with everything he can to save his family and be the hero in his wife's rescue. Spencer is the very embodiment of the great husband. He is strong and caring, strict when he needs to be and endlessly understanding when called upon. And yet he is no "father knows best" door mat or one dimensional figure. He, especially in act two, let's us see what a toll all of this is taking on Dan, too. His final release of emotion is cathartic for both actor and audience. His final moments on stage are profound and deeply affecting. And like his cast mates, he is a fantastic singer. In casting him, they have found the perfect foil for the powerhouse performance of his co-star.

That co-star, Alice Ripley, is giving the very best female musical performance of the season, and on par with the dynamic performances of recent years by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. With this role, a Tony on the way if ever there was one, Ms. Ripley can finally lay legitimate claim to the title Broadway diva. Like her aforementioned colleagues, this performance will be talked about for years to come. The minute she takes stage, you forget she is Alice Ripley. She IS Diana, mother, wife and emotional wreck. And like every aspect of this show, she goes all the way, with regard only for the piece and not going after what might make her look good. She wears no make up, cries at will, and even allows her gorgeous vocal instrument to play as the character would, often making he voice shaky and with a certain lack of control or pitch. Is she singing badly? Absolutely not; she is using every weapon in her considerable arsenal to create character through her voice, her body and her very soul. One imagines that at the end of the week she is thoroughly satisfied as an artist, and completely drained as a human being. How fortunate we are to have such a performer willing to give such a performance.

next to normal is about every family, really. And while this family struggles with mental illness, there is a beautiful universality about the piece that allows all of us to relate somehow. Such is the power of great art, which this is. Being next to normal is so much better than being "normal."

Grade A+


  1. Fantastic, insightful review of N2N. I agree completely. It's the most powerful thing I've ever seen on a stage, and I've been forunate enough to see it 4 times now (twice in DC and twice on Broadway). I still don't have the words to properly describe what it does to me, for me. The closest I can get is that it manages to give voice to things I've thought/felt, but never articulated, even to myself. It takes me a few hours to recover each time, and that's after only sitting in the audience. I can't imagine how the actors manage it 8 times a week. I'm just really grateful that they do.
    Now why did they lose the big prize to Billy Elliot? I'll never understand that.

  2. Thanks, londynnow. And I agree with what you said, too. It wipes me out. Isn't it beautiful thing, though, to have such things articulated by others when we can't find the words ourselves?

  3. Beautiful, yes. And exhilerating. And a little scary.
    The first time I saw it (all I knew about it going in was the glowing Washington Post review), at the end, all I could think was, 'holy f***.' It took till the following day before I could attempt to expand on that (though I maintain that it's a good two-word summation of the experience). And when I saw it again a few weeks ago, when it ended, I had the same two-word thought. My ability to string coherent sentences together was mostly absent for a few hours afterwords. Luckily, all I had to manage afterwards was ordering dinner.

  4. I thought Next to Normal was terrific. It was a unique musical, such a compelling look at what mental illness does to a family. Alice Ripley was amazing but I thought the whole cast was wonderful. The story is heartbreaking but it's told so well through song. You do get a sense of what this family is going through, their pain. It was so powerful and emotional that I don't know if I could see it again but I'm glad I saw it once.


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