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A CurtainUp Review
I've enjoyed so much of what Jack Cummings III and his Transport Group have produced that it pains me to say that Normal is an ill-conceived musical with none of the company's hallmark of intelligence and originality. Not that its book about a family learning to cope with eating disorder, isn't a worthy and important subject. It just doesn't lend itself to singing and seems much better suited to a documentary -- like one that has remained vivid in my memory about the singer Karen Carpenter whose anorexia finally killed her as it nearly kills Polly in Normal.
With apparently no end to the trend for juke box musicals which dress up the music of popular songsters with a fictional or biographical book, I certainly hope this isn't the beginning of a new genre of musicals about twitching, dying bullimic, and otherwise seriously ill characters. Yet, the possibility does come to mind considering that this modest little musical opens so soon after Joseph Brooks' lavishly staged In My Life whose romantic leads suffer from Tourette's Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive behavior -- and as if that weren't enough, the Tourette sufferer also develops a deadly brain tumor.
In fairness to the creative team and the director, Normal isn't as over plotted and over-produced as In My Life. The cast is quite good, especially the almost always onstage Barbara Walsh as the mother frantically trying to keep her family true to the opening number, "Happy Family" instead of slipping deeper into dysfunction, or worse. The concept of three nameless women acting as a chorus and slipping into multiple roles is well done. Tom Story's simple design is effective (though the endless rearrangement of the white cube props becomes a bit irritating.
I'm not saying that it's impossible to write a good musical in which characters end up on hospital gurneys. William Finn's New Brain (my review) was one such musical which worked for me, though my opinion represented a minority view. But Normal never manages to successfully mate the music to its increasingly depressing story. Tom Kochan's music and Cheryl Stern's lyrics are not without merit but Yvonne Adrian's book weighs everything down -- and worse still, makes this more a case history of a typical non-communicating family with the chief problem at hand mainly channeled through the mother rather than the lonely, insecure, self-destructive teenager(Erin Leigh Peck). There's also nary a surprise since that opening "Happy Family" song immediately telescopes that this "happy" family is going to fall apart song by ever more downbeat song.
With neither dad or big brother able to deal with the increasing crisis of Polly's frantic over-exercising and refusal to eat more than an occasional handful of raisins, it all falls on Mom who thus ends up coming across as the valiant rescuer -- but also the one whose eagerness to control everything contributed to the tragic events to begin with.
If there's an effective, theatrical way to turn this serious problem into an effective musical, neither Mr. Cummings or the writers have found it. For an idea about what you might expect from the Transport Group once it regains its footing from this its first ever misstep, here are links to past and infinitely more satisfying productions we've reviewed:
The First Lady Suite
Requiem for William
Leonard Maltin's 2006 Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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