A CurtainUp Review
Next to Normal
By Elyse Sommer
Original Review at Second Stage
As Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), the over-achieving sixteen-year-old daughter of Next to Normal's troubled family sums up how desperate things are:
"When they haul her off and hook her up
To try to fry her brain out. . .
When you do the shit you have to do
To drain the stupid pain out. . .
When you're trying to disguise it all,
While your Father just denies it all,
And let's you sell him any sort of fable—
You're growing up unstable."
The main players in this O'Neill-like musical drama are Diana (Alice Ripley) a manic depressive mother; Dan (Brian d'Arcy James), her devoted but unable to communicate husband; and the already mentioned daughter and her good friend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat), a fellow student. Son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) embodies the tragedy that shattered the already fragile equilibrium of a too-young marriage.
Obviously this musical tearjerker lacks hummable tunes and catchy choreography. The program lists neither a choreographer or the usual song list. Yet there are plenty of arias that vibrate with feelings and Yorkey's lyrics enable the cast to sing about their hopes and despair intelligently and without awkwardness.
Dan leads the cast into a preprise of the show's anthem ("We've been living in the dark far too long,/an endless night/Let there be light. . ."); Diana describes her depression ("And some days I think I'm dying/ But I'm really only trying/Not to Crack"); Natalie pours out her teen aged angst ("Perfect/Just play it perfect/For one mis'rable Day/Make my life be okay. . ."); Gabe poignantly sings about his disconnect from the family ("For just another day. . ./For another stolen hour/ When the world will feel my power and obey. . .Feeling like I'll live forever");
Like Rent, the show with which director Michael Greif is most closely associated, this best fits the genre of rock opera. The metallic scaffolding that's become something of a Greif trademark might not seem suitable for this family drama but set designer Mark Wendland has smartly dressed up this scaffolded set to look like a suburban house. That set's three levels handily accommodate the various scenes at and away from this home not so sweet home that make this as much a soap-opoperatic take on Ibsen's Doll's House as O'Neill's Tyrone family saga. The excellent six-member band is also scattered at each side and on various levels.
As he demonstrated in Rent, and more recently in Grey Gardens, Greif has a way of galvanizing the energy of his actors and in Next to Normal, he has an outstanding group to work with. The smoky-voiced Alice Ripley is at once fragile and feisty as a woman whose innate emotional instability is tragically exacerbated by a marriage built on a weak foundation. It's hard to believe that Brian d'Arcy James, the abundantly praised young stoker in the meagerly praised musical Titanic, is old enough to convincingly play the father of a daughter thinking about college. But if you've seen the way he's lit up the stage of straight dramas as well as musicals since then, you won't be surprised to see that he matches Ripley's bravura acting and singing as the long in denial Dan.
There's no need for Jennifer Damiano to prove her ability to be a believable sixteen-year-old. The attractive and talented Damiano IS sixteen. However, she's a seasoned trooper and, like Ripley and d'Arcy James, she is a persuasive actor and with a terrific voice. Adam Chanler-Berat adds a warm and closer to normal element to the intense Natalie's life and both young people have you rooting for their friendship to blossom. Adam Tveit is a literally as well as figuratively haunting presence.
With all of Diana's mental problems the addition of a doctor is inevitable. Asa Somers ably handles not one but two doctors: the metaphorically named Dr. Fine who believes in lots of meds to make everything fine . . . and Dr. Madden who insists that electro-convulsive treatments are no longer the stuff of of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest ("Feel my fingers lightly on your face/Each electrode, every wire in place/Lie right back and let the work begin/Lay your life down, let the light right in") though a stunning but horrendous scene reminiscent of The Who Tommy says otherwise.
Though Yorkey's book allows its characters to experience enough change to reprise the "let there be light " opening number, all this emotional sturm and drang is more downer than upper. Unlike, Spring Awakening, the young romance here is more a way of echoing that of a young Dan and Diana and lacks the raging hormones and sexual sizzle that made that show fun despite tragic events. Thus, despite the dramatically potent staging, the fine performances and a laudable score and lyrics, Next to Normal is probably too realistically downbeat to "let there be light" vis-a-vis the rumors about its transfer to Broadway.
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