Friday, July 24, 2009

Next to Normal

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.


Aaron Riccio said...

Hated hated hated this "musical", but I'm glad that you got something out of it! There's only so many times I can watch the same song and dance ("I'm Alive"), and by the opening number of Act II, where she's singing as her "body" is being electroshocked and the directors are "cleverly" paralleling this with her daughter's trip to a strobe-effecting dance club . . . oh god, it's so offensive to me that I'm spouting off against it in your comments! Sorry!

Esther said...

That's okay, I appreciate the comment. And I realize that this is a musical that provokes strong reactions. I just took something different away from it - a real feeling for what it's like to be part of a family struggling with one member's mental illness and how it affects everyone.

Monica said...

I'm gathering that "Next to Normal" is one of those shows that people either love or hate. I still haven't seen it, but when I do take my trip to New York, I hope it will still be running so I can see it.

Although, at the very least, I do think that the Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey do deserve props for trying to tackle a very difficult, very complex issue that I think most people wouldn't expect to see on Broadway. People might not agree with how mental illness and psychiatry are portrayed, but it is a very controversial topic that I think would be hard to tackle.

(By the way, just in the number from the show that was performed on the Tonys, I could see the pain in Alice Ripley's face as she was portraying Diana.)

Pam said...

I'm intrigued. I hope I have an opportunity to see it and decide if I'm in the love it or hate it camp.

Sandy said...

I was familiar with this show until I watched the Tonys. And after seeing Ripley's portrayal of Diana in that one number I decided I wanted to see it. Don't know if I will have the chance but now I'm even more intrigued.

Esther said...

Thanks for the comments, Monica, Pam and Sandy. I hope you do all get to see it someday and can join in the discussion.

I know a lot of people do take issue with its portrayal of psychiatry and mental illness and I definitely respect those opinions even though I didn't see it that way. But like Monica said, I do give the composers credit for tackling a very difficult issue.

I've been listening to the cast recording and what comes through so clear is not only Diana's pain but also the pain of her family as they try to cope with her illness.