Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer in Next to Normal. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: An exciting new musical with a lot to like...and well, a lot to dislike.
Musical theatre fans rejoice–a brand spanking new, modern musical starring the irresistible Alice Ripley is now on Broadway! Everyone else, remain seated. I know Next to Normal will amass a following of devoted fans who connect with this rock musical as if it was written for them. And I know I will get flak for not jumping on board. It's not that I don't understand, and it's not even that I don't like the show because really, there are a bunch of fantastic things about Next to Normal. There's just something missing for me, some nagging disconnect in the reality, perceived reality, and the way the plot unfolds. I want to believe these people are real but unfortunately I just can't get there. Let's start with a little background.
Next to Normal premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre last year and then played for a while at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Before this, the show was crafted on a smaller scale in New York and also ran for a bit in Seattle. All this time, the creative team and producers worked to perfect the show, getting it ready for the inevitable Broadway production we have today. I'm sure it's gone through a lot of changes in that time. Next to Normal is the story of a dysfunctional family; Diana (Alice Ripley) is a mother with mental illness, Dan (J. Robert Spencer) is her stable husband, Gabe (Aaron Tveit) is their son and Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) is their daughter. Diana's condition is getting worse and rendering her all but unable to maintain a normal life. The family is left to deal with their mother's addiction to meds, visits to various shrinks, suicide attempt, and eventually electroshock therapy which leaves her unable to remember much of the past.
Directed by Michael Greif (Rent) and with music by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt (High Fidelity), Next to Normal is a rock opera that never stops rocking. Nearly every word is sung and the band sits on stage next to the action. And the music is hands down the best part of this theatrical experience. Next to Normal feels very much like Rent in the sense that the music rocks hard and the pulsating score is consistent through the story, changing with the tone of the moment. And like Rent (which also tackles a sad and gritty storyline), the music is there as an outlet for these characters' emotions, not just for theatrical show. You'd never call these songs "numbers" or "dittys" as they hold much more weight than that. Check out the songs on the show's website for a taste of the score.
Another positive of this production are the performances, specifically the vocals. Everyone sings this show with absolute perfection, equally weighted and important to the story. It's wonderful to listen to. Acting-wise, Ripley and Damiano are riviting. Ripley is charmingly disturbed and Damiano, as the 16-year old just trying to make it through adolescence, evokes such pain and weakness through a collected, determined exterior. To their credit, Tveit and Adam Chanler-Beret as Natalie's boyfriend Henry do their best to create unique characters that support the story even though they aren't given much to work with in the script. Louis Hobson as the various doctors is adequate although his part isn't very deep at all. Spencer, as Diana's husband, lacks adequate emotion; the ex-Jersey Boy sounds supurb but I never believed he was anyone's husband or father, doting or otherwise.
If you're a already a musical theatre fan, stop reading now and go see Next to Normal. You'll like it, you'll connect, you'll cry, you'll appreciate the uniqueness this show has to offer in a consistently cookie-cutter genre. It deserves credit for breaking the norm. But if you're interested in the other side of the coin, I'll be happy to tell you why this show doesn't work for me. It mostly has to do with the minimalist, representational approach to the story-telling (which actually, I'm usually all about). The set (also like Rent) is a three-storied structure of scaffolding representing the family's home. The ground floor includes furniture that gets pushed to the front of the stage when it's being used and pushed back when it's not. The other scenes take place in the bare area in front of the house with a few set pieces or props to indicate the setting. Basically, the scenes are "suggested" to the audience and we use our imaginations to connect the dots. In theory, this technique should work, and if the characters were as real and grounded as the plot lends, I wouldn't have had a problem with the minimalistic interpretation...it would've been an artsy storytelling choice that didn't muddy the plot.
But sadly I didn't, for one iota of one second, believe that any of these characters were real or their story true. The gravity of this situation, especially at the end of the play, wouldn't make anyone sing, let alone look on any bright side of life. The plight this family goes through is so damn depressing I'm not sure one could just soldier on and look on the bright side, and at least not be severely screwed up. Seriously, it's a downer. Maybe this story requires stronger acting choices, more depth to these characters to bring their drama to life. Next to Normal introduces a profound set of circumstances and never really delves into how the characters feel about them. Sure, we hear the lyrics and feel the drive of the music, but the actors don't truly personify people going through a struggle (Damiano not included, she's mostly dead-on with her character's emotion). Maybe they're too busy singing. And maybe this story would be better told without music. I really wanted to connect with this show, and through the music I did feel somewhat attached. But in the end, Next to Normal didn't leave me feeling resolved or restored, it simply left me feeling sad and disjointed.
(Next to Normal plays at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Performances are Mondays at 8pm, Tuesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm & 7:30pm. The show runs 2 hrs. 20 min. with one 15 min. intermission. Tickets are $36.50-$121.50 with a limited number of $25 rush tickets available at the box office starting at 10am. For tickets visit telecharge.com. For more show info visit nexttonormal.com.)