BWW Reviews: In and Out of Madness, an Opera's Tale - NEXT TO NORMAL at the Artists Repertory Theatre
It genuinely thrills me when the talent in a play is what I leave the theater having enjoyed, specifically because as a writer I’m so much more inclined to pay attention to what the script is doing rather than The Players. Musicals perhaps make it easier, their purpose in some respects being to put the spectacle of their casts’ talent front and center instead of winning the audience over subtly with character and narrative, but perhaps I should also stop undermining my own opinion. NEXT TO NORMAL is very impressive. It stands as a thoughtful, surprising, oft heartstring-tugging production about mental illness and a family falling apart. It is a production that sells itself on the chemistry of its ensemble and the fervor with which every cast member sings their song. That’s what did it for me. So why am I confused about how the original script picked up some Tony Awards?
Okay, that’s being unfair. The composition is impressive and extensive, and chances are I’m just becoming a bitter old man, so ignore me. No, wait! Don’t ignore me! Please come back, I miss you. The music is lovely and well crafted, and performed to near-flawlessness by the house band. Yes. Without a doubt. There are a few issues, though, and before I address them please note that I am drawing a line in the sand between where the writing ends and where the actual production begins.
The first issue concerns my comment that the composition is extensive. But maybe I should rephrase. The composition isn’t just extensive, it is exhausting! The novelty and draw of a rock opera is obviously the songs and music, but in order to stand out and completely fill their potential of being full-fledged ‘spectacle events’, those songs must have some room to breathe. Some acting to move narrative, build character, or most importantly to put our feet back on the ground until the next high-flying number gives every ‘spectacle event’ some context and some space with which the audience can digest what they’ve seen and get excited when the next song actually does comes around. NEXT TO NORMAL, however, is a narrative composed nearly entirely of songs. Song. Song. Song. Brief moment of dialogue. Song. Song. Song. Achingly beautiful moment of silent contemplation by the character Diana. Song. Songsongsongsong. It just…blurred by the end.
The second music issue comes from the other side of the line in the sand: the production side. The band really did do a good job, but the Artists Repertory Theatre is small. I can completely see how some of the heavier rocking songs would have worked on a big Broadway stage, but performing in the space available for this show (as well as making sure the music didn’t overpower the singers) forces a situation where there is just no bottom when it comes to the dirty-rock sections. There was no oomph, to use the Latin. When the audience can hear the guitar pick hitting the electric guitar strings over the amplified sound then it’s time to turn the amplifier up. But you can’t turn the amplifier up, the space is too small. Dilemma, and one that I think we’ll have to pass over with a shrug and accept as a casualty of a well-fought battle.
One last quibble, then I’m going to gush about how cute the girl who plays Natalie is. I’ll talk about other things too, but you know…priorities. The name of this odorous beast is ‘buzzwords’, something I find more annoying than Kim Kardashian. Or the death of a Beastie Boy. Or…one second, Google Trends is running slow on my computer…anyway, they’re irritating, and this production is teetering on the precipice of overdoing them. Referencing Charlie Sheen may get the cheap laugh out of the audience but that’s exactly what it is…cheap. We didn’t laugh at the honesty or the insight, we laughed because it was a name we recognized in the context of recent events. Oh god, I’m doing the bitter old man thing again, aren’t I…
Look, the pop culture and Portland references were safe enough, but the majority of the mental illness narrative in NEXT TO NORMAL is a discussion concerning psychiatric medication and the ‘medication-generation’, which is a buzz-topic still hot off the press. Why this is a problem, though, is that the play ironically reinforces the very behavior it condemns psychiatric medication for: it engages with the symptom instead of the real issue. Why are we a generation that relies on psychiatric medication so heavily? Should we be concerned about Big Pharmacy? Are our doctors too eager to prescribe science that’s been around for too short a time? These are the questions under the surface of this topic, but all the audience gets from the narrative is “Pills bad! Pills bad! Pills bad!”, followed by the response, “fine, you don’t want pills? Our only other option is torture”.