By admin on Apr 16, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
Tackling difficult subjects in musicals is nothing new. Serial murderers, teen pregnancy and suicide have been at the center of recent successes like the revival of Sweeney Todd and Spring Awakening respectively. With Next to Normal, the new musical from Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) which opened last night at the Booth Theatre, bipolar disorder takes center stage. It's an arresting show: it's filled with vibrantly contemporary music and relates a potentially powerful story about a woman's break with reality and her journey back to health. Unfortunately, while words like "ambitious" and "important" are in order for "Normal," and it would be remiss to not champion the writers' potential, the show never fully satisfies.
The opening moments of "Normal" certainly grab the audience as the chaotic world of a family one morning comes bracingly and amusingly to life. Diana (Alice Ripley) greets the morning before sunrise. She's been up waiting for her son Gabe (Aaron Tveit). Before long, overachieving daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) has appeared schoolbooks and Red Bull in hand, complaining about the gargantuan school workload she's got. In between her time with the kids, Diana reassures husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) that she's doing alright and even schedules a bit of early morning nookie with him. Problem is that before the family has left their home (its exterior cleverly indicated with pop-art like flair in Mark Wendland's three-tiered scenic design) for the day, Diana's on the floor laying out slices of bread to get a head-start on the sandwiches that should be made for everyone.
Dan, who's been coping with Diana's disease for a majority of their 17 year marriage, knows that it's time to get Diana to Dr. Madden (Louis Hobson), her psychopharmacologist, and he indeed does try to get her onto a new pill regimen, but as with all psychotropic drug therapies, there are ups, downs, and unbearable side effects. When Diana finally announces that "I don't feel anything" (the use of a cello in a dull drone underneath this sequence is one of the most chilling moments in the orchestrations from Michael Starobin and Kitt), the doctor notes: "Patient stable."
It's harrowing stuff and some of it's gorgeously delivered in montages of song (Kitt's musical vocabulary ranges from soft country-rock-like ballads to crushing almost heavy metal sounds) and text that have been fleetly staged by director Michael Greif and Sergio Trujillo (credited with "musical staging"). And yet, the piece falters when Diana flushes her pills down the toilet, abetted, seemingly, by Gabe. The ironically named Dr. Fine (also played by Hobson) appears on the scene, seeming to make headway with talk therapy, but even his efforts prove fruitless. Diana has a near fatal snap, and at this juncture, all Fine can prescribe is electroconvulsive therapy, a regimen that Diana begrudgingly undergoes.
As Diana and Dan try to stabilize her condition, they are unaware that Natalie is spinning out-of-control, abusing her mother's drugs after experimenting with marijuana with boyfriend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat). It's a disquieting secondary layer to "Normal," and in addition to illustrating the sort of wide-range effect that Diana's disease has, it's one in which Yorkey beautifully echoes themes and ideas from the primary story, particularly both Dan and Henry's almost blind love for the women in their lives and the desire to see them return to health.
Diana's return to "normalcy" or at least a state "next to normal" is made all the more difficult by not only the severe memory loss caused by the ECT, but by one of the other factors in her illness. She's not only bipolar and depressive, she also suffers from delusions, and one in particular regarding the loss of a child early in her marriage to Dan. And it's in the depiction of this aspect of Diana's journey to health that the musical truly stumbles. The manifestation of Diana's illusions seems almost too gimmicky and manipulative. Further, the logic behind the phantoms that plague Diana don't always add up; if they're of her own creation, it stands to reason they have no psychology of their own or the ability to act independently, yet, in "Normal," such anomalies exist. Initially, theatergoers may be willing to set such thoughts aside, but as the piece progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so.
One reason may be that musically, the show does have something of a wearying effect. Although Kitt's score is diverse – there are moments when the range of musical idioms that the characters have is a direct result of their own unique tastes in music – it relies almost exclusively on thundering rock anthems for the moments in which characters express their anger. The result is that many of the most emotionally intense sequences become repetitive in sound and tone, if not in thought.
The demands of Kitt's score, thankfully, are met by the company with astounding vocal power even as they match the show's almost operatic passions with intensity. Their commitment to the material never wavers, and often story and performance combine in thrilling and heartbreaking ways, but "Normal" never reaches the point where theatergoers are completely swept into the familial drama that's unfolding. It always feels as if it is at arms-length. It's a musical to be respected and certainly applauded, and Yorkey and Kitt have certainly worked to stretch the boundaries of the sort of story that can be shared in a musical: the sort of intimate and timely family drama one associates with the likes of Arthur Miller. Theatergoers should make the time to see "Normal," only being aware that there are both rewards and disappointments to be found in the show.
---- Andy Propst
Next to Normal plays at the Booth Theatre (222 West 45th Street). Performances are Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday through Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2 and 8pm; and Sunday at 3 and 7:30pm. Tickets are $25.00 - $115.00 and can be purchased by calling 212-239-6200 or by visiting www.Telecharge.com. Further information is available online at www.NextToNormal.com.
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