Next to Normal
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 22, 2009
The most amazing aspect of Next to Normal, the rock musical now moving audiences from cheers to tears and back again, is not the stellar cast or its precise direction; neither is it the imaginative lighting or the edgy set design—all working in harmony for a full and unexpected visual and emotional journey. Rather, it is the ability of Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) to empathetically capture what happens to a family when one of its members suffers from mental illness. The result is heartbreaking, frustrating, educational, and, yes, even funny.
In the play, Diana, who lives with her devoted husband, Dan, and their 16-year-old daughter, Natalie, is an ostensibly energetic, take-charge mom who loses her capacity to cope as she becomes increasingly obsessed with their son Gabe. She is oblivious to Natalie, who finds solace in Mozart, drugs, and a kind boyfriend, Henry. Holding the family together is Dan, who begins by finding medical help for his wife, but whose decisions become progressively difficult. Diana agrees to psychotherapy, drug therapy, hypnosis, and more. Diagnosed as bipolar, possibly schizophrenic, definitely suicidal, ultimately the doctors admit they cannot accurately diagnose her. So how can they devise a cure?
This is theater for the voyeur. Even in an age when one's personal business seems to be everybody else's as well, the question here for theatergoers will be: do I want to know this much about this family? Once you agree, expect a show where talent abounds.
Let's begin with the set. Mark Wendland has designed the interior of a three-story house that could easily pass for a jungle gym: a metallic structure where there are many places to climb, but nowhere to hide. It occupies the entire height and breadth of the stage in the Booth Theatre, allowing characters to race up and down staircases from room to room, floor to floor, and inside to outdoors. Characters emerge unexpectedly; they slip in from shadows—not unlike Diana's memories. Kevin Adams's lighting serves almost as another cast member. It is bold, wonderfully intrusive—and, in one scene, even hilarious—as it reflects Diana's hypersensitive thoughts.
Director Michael Greif gives Next to Normal an operatic tone when his characters sing duets, trios, and quartets from different rooms and floors. This story line is no straight walk to the doctor for a painful talk and a cure. Greif puts his characters—and the audience—through a psychological maze, and comes up with a production that feels truthful. Of course, it helps that the material is rich. With very little dialog, Yorkey has filled Next to Normal with lyrics that feel conversational and contemporary. He's given the plot depth with unanticipated turns, and provides the love and tenderness needed to make an unpredictable ending thought-provoking. Kitt's music supplies range, gliding naturally from one song into the next, then adjusting the tempo and mood, always taking his audience to the exact emotional spot he wants.
Of course, this doesn't happen without an excellent cast. Alice Ripley shines in giving Diana delicate balance. She is quick and witty at the opening in "Just Another Day" and so very sad in the tender, painful duet with her son in "I Dreamed A Dance." She is the epitome of the line, "The price of love is loss." As her husband, Dan, J. Robert Spencer delivers a trapped man—trapped by love, trapped by responsibilities, trapped by the cruel options and by his own limitations. Jennifer Damiano harnesses the anger of the invisible Natalie; Adam Chanler-Berat delivers a boyfriend with heart; Louis Hobson doubles nicely as Drs. Madden and Fine; and Aaron Tveit, in a winning performance, makes you understand why Diana is reluctant to let her son go.
Next to Normal feels like a complicated, yet explicit, exploration of family dynamics, and it is done in a fresh and gripping way. The whole ensemble captures the essence of relationships and what binds people together. They also understand the cumulative dents that amount to demolition in this family. Mixing a musical with this type of content creates an unusual piece of theater, and a successful one at that.