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Monday, 27 April 2009 23:05

Review: next to normal

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next to normal
Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer in next to normal
Photo: Joan Marcus

next to normal represents a new modern style of Broadway musical. If you thought Mr. Sondheim wrote serious musical theatre, meet Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey the composer and lyricist respectively of this thrilling new musical.

I'm not going to try and explain the plot except to say that this is the story of a family tormented by mental illness. next to normal finds its brilliance in the sum of its parts. To try and describe them individually would make the piece sound trite. This material is so accessible by anyone who has dealt with any kind of family trauma. The entire story is told using more than 30 songs that have a broad range of styles. You won't necessarily be humming them as you leave the theatre, but they do work to further the plot and they drive the show along nicely. Many of them are short and serve almost as a recitative in furtherance of the plot. Alice Ripley gives a raw and gut wrenching performance as Diana, a wife and mother who isn't fully in control of her own mind. In the show her diagnosis is given m many technical descriptions with bipolar seeming to be the most oft used. At the beginning of the show we meet the adoring husband, well played by J. Robert Spencer (Jersey Boys), Natalie, the child conceived under misguided intentions and Gabe, the perfect son. Or is he? Does he even exist? The answer is no. Gabe is dead and lives only in Diana's head. It is this ghost that haunts and torments Diana.

next to normal
Adam Chanler-Berat and Jennifer Damiano in next to normal
Photo: Joan Marcus
Jennifer Damiano as the tormented daughter Natalie is sarcastic and caustic as she deals with growing up, a first love and a mother she is worried she might become. Her boyfriend is Henry the pothead played to lovable perfection by Adam Chanler-Berat. His attention to Natalie and her mother is gallant. While J. Robert Spencer did a terrific job in the role of Dan, his tenor voice didn't fit the role. It didn't have the years of torment in it; it was too pretty or even too young. If you saw him in Jersey Boys you will know that he is a talented man. As Gabe, Aaron Tveit is a loving son but also a torment to his mother. Mr. Tveit handles the wild swings of both the character mood and the vocals brilliantly. Louis Hobson as Drs. Madden and Fine makes the most out of his time to shine as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figment of Diana's mind.

Director Michael Greif certainly knows his milieu. He has taken a dark subject and a talented cast and assembled them into a finely honed unit. Much as he did in his direction of Rent and Grey Gardens. Mark Wendland's set is brilliant and serves the production well, particularly when used to effect as Gabe watches down on his family.

next to normal
Jennifer Damiano, Aaron Tveit and Adam Chanler-Berat in next to normal

I do have one complaint. Frequently during the performance I was noticing that several of the actors had pitch problems. The orchestra was stacked on a second and third tier on opposite sides of the stage from each other. I found myself wondering if they couldn't hear the band. If I had a dollar for every time an actor ever said to me as a stage manager "can I get more monitor" (you know who you are) I would be rich. Something for the show to think about moving forward. Because I'm guessing this show is going to be here a while.

Side note: This is the perfect musical to bring someone to if that someone ordinarily doesn't like musicals.

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In other reviews...

Ben Brantley for the NY Times writes "No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as next to normal does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives." Read the entire review

Joe Dziemianowicz in the NY Daily News writes "A story of a mom's mental illness and the toll it has taken on her and everyone around her may not sound like one that sings, but Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) have created an exceptional show that says something meaningful and powerful about surviving in a world of problems." Read the entire review

Jeremey Gerard writes for Bloomberg "Superbly cast and staged by Michael Greif, next to normal is a distinctly modern musical. Lights frequently glare into the eyes of audience members. Mark Wendland’s skeletal, multitiered set features the black-and-white image of a house that resembles a newspaper photograph blown up so all the dots of ink turn it into a kind of Rorschach test." Read the entire review

For the Associated Press, Michael Kuchwara writes "There are no easy answers to be found in next to normal , a startling, emotion-drenched musical about one family's attempt to cope with mental illness. The show is an impressive achievement, a heartfelt entertainment that has found its way back to New York after an invaluable out-of-town retooling." Read the entire review


Last modified on Friday, 23 July 2010 14:04