Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
I've been fortunate to end each of my past three Broadway seasons with a memorable musical - Spring Awakening in 2007, The Lion King in 2008 and in 2009, Next to Normal, the best new musical I saw this year.
Now don't get me wrong - I loved Tony-winner Billy Elliot. It's just so hard to compare the two. I loved each of them for what they are - Billy's dancing and the poignancy and humor in its story of a young boy discovering his passion.
But with Next to Normal, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist and book writer Brian Yorkey have accomplished something so rare on Broadway - an original story about a complex subject. The result is a compelling and compassionate look at how one person's mental illness can devastate a family.
Alice Ripley gives a searing performance as Diana, a wife and mother struggling with delusions and feelings of depression and the side effects of her treatment. I was in the third row and I'm not exaggerating when I say I could see the pain on her face. She deservedly won the Tony award.
I think it's a tribute to director Michael Greif that despite her episodes of madness, Ripley's Diana never seemed over the top, a stereotypical "crazy person," but always believable. The sparse, almost industrial-looking design by Mark Wendland is the opposite of comforting and homey.
But Ripley isn't the only one in pain and I think that's what gives Next to Normal a great deal of its power. J. Robert Spencer, who plays her husband, Dan, and Jennifer Damiano, as their teenage daughter Natalie, are heartbreaking as they show how Diana's illness has affected their lives.
Adam Chanler-Berat is very sweet and tender as Henry, a boy who loves Natalie and Kyle Dean Massey is mesmerizing as Gabe, who hovers over this story, literally and figuratively. And Louis Hobson, who plays two of Diana's doctors, comes across as caring and professional.
I think that Kitt and Yorkey, who won the Tony for Best Score, do a very effective job of telling the story through song. The vibrant rock 'n' roll sound reminds me a little of Spring Awakening. The lyrics are rich and evocative. They convey so well what each character is going through - how they feel, their fears and frustrations.
In fact, the story is presented so powerfully, as much as I loved it I'm not sure I could ever sit through Next to Normal again. Some parts were pretty tough to watch.
I'm not saying Next to Normal is perfect. For one thing, there's a plot point that's a mystery throughout the first act and I'm not sure Yorkey and Kitt made the right decision in stringing us along. The way it's finally explained is different from what I expected. And I'm not sure I totally buy the explanation.
I know some people have criticized Next to Normal as an attack on psychiatry, as an endorsement of a very risky path for someone like Diana. (For a spoilerish but insightful discussion, check out Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals.)
While I respect those opinions, and I think my friend and fellow blogger Chris Caggiano makes some excellent points, I honestly didn't see Next to Normal as bashing psychiatry or treatment for mental illness or even romanticizing it.
For one thing, I don't think Diana ever leaves the care of a doctor. And I think that for people struggling with mental illness, events can unfold exactly the way they do in this musical. Sometimes treatment works but sometimes it doesn't. Or it works for a time and then stops. And I admire Next to Normal for not trying to tie things up neat and tidy.
I see Next to Normal as a depiction of the difficulty in treating mental illness despite the best efforts of doctors, despite all of the tools that modern medicine has to offer, despite people in the throes of it wanting to get better, despite the love and care and desperate hopes of families.