Next to Normal: Booth Theatre, 1/9/10

18 01 2010

I first encountered Next to Normal in summer 2009 when I lived in NYC for 2 months, working with Career Explorations and subsequently presenting a paper on the emerging scholars panel for the Music Theatre / Dance group at ATHE.  I ended up seeing the show 3 times in that short time span.  Again, in my defense, I took different friends each time: a group of CE high schoolers, visiting family, and visiting LA friends.  For my most recent NYC trip, I tried to get tickets to a different intriguing new show or revival on Broadway, but all the “cheap” tickets to Fela! and Finian’s Rainbow were sold out and I couldn’t afford another $100+ ticket.  I could have student rushed one of these newer options, but I decided spending time with friends in the area was more important than snagging a cheap show ticket.  So Next to Normal was the wonderful, inevitable back-up choice!  A back-row ticket at the smaller Booth Theater is only $36.50: one of the best deals on Broadway right now.

With music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal chronicles a dysfunctional suburban family dealing with the mother’s deepening bipolar disorder.  Alice Ripley gives a stunning performance as the mother Diana, who undergoes a variety of treatments – medicine to hypnosis to electro-shock therapy – to erase, or at least mediate, her prolonged grief.  Ripley’s Tony Award-winning performance is always fresh and dynamic, but I do sometimes worry about her voice; strained from the sheer force required for this rock score, she sometimes falls a whole note flat!  In comparison to summer performances, her voice was better-rested this January; it seems she is learning to properly care for it amidst the stresses of 8 powerhouse shows a week.

Strangely, this tension of whether Ripley will hit the note or fall short somehow works for the character, even creating a psychological anxiety in the musically-aware audience member’s mind.  Over the summer, I caught Ripley’s understudy Jessica Phillips in one performance; she did a serviceable job of replicating Ripley’s embodiment of Diana, but her perfectly-pitched voice was … well, a little too perfect.  Ripley’s sometimes grating vocal tone and tendency towards flatness actualize a woman on the edge.  Though Ripley dominates the show, the rest of the cast is likewise exceptional; J. Robert Spencer (Dan) could use a bit more emotional range to accompany his wonderfully grounded voice, but Kyle Dean Massey (Gabe) and Jennifer Damiano (Natalie) give “balanced, nimble, and crystalline clear” performances.  An unexpected treat is Adam Chanler-Berat as Henry, with a nice dusky tone in “Perfect for You.”  Instead of homogeneous pop voices, Next to Normal celebrates unique vocal qualities.

In an earlier entry, I noted my predilection to analyze performances and structure – and particularly the music, which is often glossed over in other reviews.  My reviews will often gloss over other areas – such as design or direction – in favor of aspects that intrigue me more.  Bearing this in mind, the most exciting aspect of Next to Normal for me is the musical form.  I am interested in repetition as a meaning-making device in the musical, and Next to Normal is rife with elements of innovative structural repetition.  Beyond an excellent use of reprise and leitmotiv to bind the score together, Next to Normal employs what I might call “simultaneous repetition.”  The audience must simultaneously read multiple layers of meaning in a single piece: two or more characters sing the same lyrics, but these lyrics are sometimes addressed to different characters and take on different valences of meaning.  Diana (undergoing ECT) and her daughter Natalie (hooked on drugs) echo one another’s experiences of mediated reality in “Wish I Were Here,” for instance; and Dan and Henry renew their commitments to Diana and Natalie, respectively, in “A Promise.”  These are the emotionally-heightened, complexly layered moments that draw me into the musical most fully and give me a reason for repeat visits – wanting to unpack these dense and complicated scenes.  (My dissertation is veering towards this sort of analysis.)

This sort of repetition also invests the musical with a power to articulate similarities in experiences while simultaneously acknowledging differences.  At the risk of getting too academic, I will simply say: I believe Next to Normal captivates a wide audience because of these elements of simultaneous repetition, which expand the show’s resonance to a variety of individuals dealing with dysfunctional family situations, mental illness, drug abuse, etc.  The ability for multiple characters to repeat the same song (sometimes even with the same lyrics and/or at the same time) necessarily suggests a continuity or similarity across experiences that binds us together as human beings and reassures us that we are not alone.

A musical can do all that?!?  I really believe it can.  As a footnote, Next to Normal was also the perfect conclusion to my weekend NYC trip because it continually renews my hope that an innovative new show can slip through the cracks and make it to Broadway.  It took a long developmental process to get there, but Next to Normal’s ongoing success demonstrates that there is still an audience for new, thought-provoking productions on Broadway.

For a little fun, check out my sister’s and my rendition of “I Am the One” on YouTube.  Mary Hannah gets to be a little schizophrenic herself, embodying 3 roles by the end of the song!




6 responses

18 01 2010

for one that doesn’t like musicals, i was captivated for that fact that it mirrored the psychotic tension that everyone inevitably goes through and believes at one point or another that they don’t. it is quite an eyeopener (and ear) on many levels. i have to say however, watching it over the summer without alice broke my heart strings.

18 01 2010

You know you secretly love musicals, Roxanne. 😉

18 01 2010
Mary Hannah

Thanks for calling me schizo. =) And I’m surprised you didn’t mention the over-held “oh” in the video, Miss Perfection.

12 04 2010
Next to Normal wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] Check out the full LA Times article for further details about this unexpected win, and my original review of Next to Normal. […]

17 11 2010
Creating N2N: A Conversation with the Creative Team « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] when I raved about Next to Normal after my last visit to NYC? (See my review here.) N2N‘s national tour opens at LA’s own Ahmanson Theatre soon, and UCLA students have […]

16 12 2010
A Year in Theater: 2010 « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] to Normal (Booth Theatre and Ahmanson) – Review This show is like therapy. Emotionally-exhausting, but intensely cathartic. Alice Ripley astounds […]

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