Next to Normal
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
February 19, 2008
Another success story out of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Next to Normal contains many of the elements conventional wisdom holds to be necessary for success in the current musicals marketplace: small cast (check), pop/rock score (check), edgy subject matter (check), knowing consumer-culture references (check). When watching the show, it's very apparent why the artistic regime at Second Stage chose to pluck it from the off-off Broadway NYMF, assign it an A-list Broadway director (in this case Michael Greif), hire a top-notch cast, and give it the kind of sleek, high-tech production that always looks particularly good set against Rem Koolhaas's equally sleek postmodern theatre space. What they haven't done, however, is help the creative team (Tom Kitt, music, and Brian Yorkey, book and lyrics) shape the often thrilling individual elements into a whole that fulfills the dramatic potential of their material.
When we first meet the suburban family who will be our focus for the next two-and-a-half hours, mom Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley) is waiting up for son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) in the early morning hours. It's a school/work night, yet apparently none of the family is getting any sleep. Architect father Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) is also awake, and perfectionist daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) has been chugging Red Bull all night while finishing "three more chapters of calculus, a physics problem, a history quiz and two pages on floral imagery in Flowers of Algernon, which is like, duh." It feels like we're watching a special musicalized episode of one of those quality hour-long TV dramas, like Brothers & Sisters—you know, those shows all about affluent white people and how their suburban lifestyle makes them so neurotic, driven, cold, insomniac, but also given to moments of fragility and witty introspection, as they go about preparing for (and singing about) "Just Another Day."
But then the creators pull the rug out from under the cliché.
It turns out (spoiler alert), the seemingly completely normal, pleasant, fortysomething mother we see embodied by sweet, lovely Alice Ripley is also completely bonkers, subject to bipolar manic episodes and prone to delusional psychotic hallucinations. It also turns out that one of the members of her onstage family is actually deceased, existing only as a vivid figment of her fraught imagination.
Much of the show relates her struggles to overcome her mental illness and put the ghost to rest who haunts most of her waking hours. After a publicly humiliating episode in a Costco (that seems to largely involve her lying on the floor and singing at the top of her lungs the names of various consumer products), Diana's psychopharmacologist first tries adjusting her meds. That works to take the edge off her mania, but the drugs make her feel so detached from herself that she decides to go off them. This triggers another schizophrenic episode, prompting her husband to seek out a new psychiatrist (both doctors played by Asa Somers) to treat her. She undergoes hypnosis. Again, the treatment shows results, but this time she attempts suicide. Her doctor recommends electroshock therapy. This is where the show lost me, because unfortunately the creative team had the brainstorm (pun intended) that staging and orchestrating this treatment would make an "electrifying" first act finale (whether as a joke or in complete earnestness is kind of hard to tell). And so the audience is forced to sit through a blindingly bright musical interlude filled with lyrics sung by the doctor such as "Watch me turn the dial and flip the switch / Watch me watch your toes and fingers twitch / Check the power, check the pulse and then / We'll check the wire and fire it up again" while gyrating like an escapee from Rocky Horror. I mean, come on.
Act II is more of the same. Diana loses her memory because of the electroconvulsive therapy, but then gets it back. While all this is happening, Natalie has gotten involved with both a boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) and with drugs, but then just as easily gets off of them (the drugs that is—the boy she sort of pledges everlasting love to), much in the same way her mom recovers her memory. Gabe is pissed that his father doesn't give him more attention. And, Dad, well he's sort of just there, stolidly reacting to the den of crazies around him.
It's clear that the creators have done their homework concerning the contours of mental illness—patients improve slightly and then relapse; a response to treatment for depression can often ironically enable a patient to follow through on suicidal thoughts; patients will go off of their meds because of side effects. All of the specifics ring true (except the location—it seems to be set in Every Suburb), and if this were in fact a TV show, it could prove quite fascinating watching Diana cope with her illness over an entire season. But it's theatre, and ultimately the back-and-forthing frustrates any attempt to build a satisfyingly unified dramatic arc. Clearly, for her to overcome her affliction, she needs to exorcise the demon who is both her tormentor and object of her desire. But Kitt and Yorkey don't provide this dramatic release. The resolution feels too easy—especially after so much stage time is expended showing what a tricky adversary the disease can be. And in their own bit of trickery, they deflect the central dramatic conflict onto another character at the very end. This could have proven to be a psychologically astute move (Diana was seeing the ghost another character refused to mourn), but as written and staged, it's merely confusing.
Greif, perhaps sensing the inherent logical flaws in the material, sends his cast scampering manically up and down the trilevel set in an apparent effort to distract us from thinking too much about the textual inconsistencies. And while his production is beautiful in many respects, one questions whether a flashy design is really appropriate for a show about how banal the struggle with mental illness can often be (and the rows of naked light bulbs in the electroshock scene really do hurt the eyes). The cast for the most part acquit themselves admirably. Ripley and d'Arcy James are Broadway pros of the first order, and they turn in the kind of solid musical theatre performances that are one of the joys of living in New York. But it's only in the number "You Don't Know" that the duo really get to show just how deep their talent is. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you watch these two characters, who love each other very much, so thoroughly miscommunicate their pain to each other, causing even more pain in the process. However, the best performance of the evening hands down is Jennifer Damiano's Natalie. Never less than completely honest and present, she turns in the kind of non–musical theatre musical theatre performance that even the pros could learn from.