Will Broadway have the smarts and taste to anoint "Next to Normal" the best new musical of the year? Unveiled last year at off-Broadway's Second Stage, and polished in December to a smashing finish at Washington's Arena Stage, the show opened last night at the Booth Theatre as a prime example of the power of rock to tell heart-rending stories -- and of the value of reworking a musical until you get it right.
NEXT TO NORMAL Broadway Reviews
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No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives. “Next to Normal” does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.
The most amazing aspect of Next to Normal, the rock musical now moving audiences from cheers to tears and back again, is not the stellar cast or its precise direction; neither is it the imaginative lighting or the edgy set design—all working in harmony for a full and unexpected visual and emotional journey. Rather, it is the ability of Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) to empathetically capture what happens to a family when one of its members suffers from mental illness. The result is heartbreaking, frustrating, educational, and, yes, even funny.
There are no easy answers to be found in "Next to Normal," a startling, emotion-drenched musical about one family's attempt to cope with mental illness. The show is an impressive achievement, a heartfelt entertainment that has found its way back to New York after an invaluable out-of-town retooling.
As the unmoored mother, Ripley gives a towering performance that leaves you tongue-tied for superlatives. In "I Miss the Mountains," she explores the show's probing question: What's worse - being pill-free and unpredictable or being drugged and numb? "Next to Normal" covers a challenging subject, no question. That it's hopeful and uplifting, not depressing, is more than a triumph - it's next to wondrous.
And while I'll admit the loud, raucous and darkly-humored Feeling Electric was more to my personal taste ("Taking a semi-automatic and shooting as many popular kids as possible is really the only sane response to high school."), the latest incarnation of Next To Normal - which has turned a 180 from being a musical about depression to one about a family's efforts to keep the disease from tearing them apart - is a far better musical. In fact, it's only the existence of a Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls that keeps Next To Normal from being the best written musical currently on Broadway; and having West Side Story around is all that keeps it from being the most daring.
It is not easy to pull off a musical about psychotropic drugs and electroconvulsive therapy—or for that matter, about duty, freedom and loss. In its trial mounting at Second Stage last year, Next to Normal sometimes suffered from acute self-consciousness and mood swings. Happily, authors Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt have successfully stabilized the show since then, and their songs make up the best new Broadway score of the season, merging show-tune influences (William Finn neurosis in “My Psychopharmacologist and I”) with more radio-ready styles (John Denver wistfulness in “I Miss the Mountains,” Seventies pop-rock thrust in the instantly memorable “I’m Alive”).
It's a tough sell: a rock musical about mental illness. One or two people losing their marbles is pretty much de rigeur in a play; where would Shakespeare, O'Neill, Williams, or Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) be without it? But composer Tom Kitt and lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey chose to devote two hours and 20 minutes (and nearly 40 songs) to this generally unappealing subject; the result, in Next to Normal, is incongruously, sometimes agonizingly beautiful.
N2N maps the road from this queasy drugged stability through crackup to a cautiously hopeful final picking up of the pieces. Unusual for a musical, this narrative has affinities to TV drama and to recent nonmusicals like Lisa Loomer's Distracted. But N2N, which has gone through some astute reworking since its debut at Off-Broadway's Second Stage in 2008, cannily employs musical-theater tactics to push its quirkily specific story up toward general meaning. It doesn't totally succeed at this, but does achieve several very big moments when the performer, the song, and the larger intent combine, forging the empathetic bond between audience and show that gives musicals a spark of transcendence.
Unlike the bipolar manic-depressive at the center of "Next to Normal," who draws no lasting salvation from her trials with different medications, this original new pop-rock musical has benefited unequivocally from treatment. Composer Tom Kitt, writer-lyricist Brian Yorkey and director Michael Greif have made a lot of smart changes en route to Broadway, giving the show a more assertive personality, a more consistent tone, sharper focus and greater depth to its relationships. While its weaknesses have not been entirely erased, they are outweighed by the intimate musical's ambition, sincerity and heightened emotional involvement.
Next to so much else that's crooning on Broadway these days, you have to applaud the unique artistry that went into "Next To Normal." It's not perfect. And while delving into the rabbit hole of mental illness you may find the material somewhat familiar, the treatment is altogether original. "Next To Normal" is that rare musical that touches your heart and gets under your skin.
To the noble Marin Mazzie falls the unenviable task of replacing Alice Ripley in Next to Normal, and she rises to the challenge: The succession is a success. Ripley’s star turn was one of those rare, perfect matches of actor and role; all of the idiosyncrasies that distinguish Ripley as a performer seemed to weave into her Diana, a suburban housewife suffering from an extreme version of bipolar disorder. To equal her would be next to impossible—Betty Buckley might have given her a run 15 years ago—and I was wary of seeing anyone else as Diana. But Mazzie comes through with confidence and surprising intensity. If this beast of a role seems a little tamer under her control, it still scratches out.
The show’s lyrics ponder memory loss, depression and confusion. A typical musical number is “My psychopharmacologist and I.” This not only is a serious, substantial, dignified and musically sophisticated new American work, intensely staged by Michael Greif, but a frequently moving picture of a empathetic nuclear family whose members are struggling, like many of us, to take care of themselves and each other, and to keep the stitches in the fraught daily fabric of their everyday lives.
Just when it seemed the superlatives couldn't get any more super, "A Little Night Music" gets Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch; and now “Next To Normal” stars Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, and both shows are better than ever.
Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, married in real life, now play Diana and her long-suffering husband, Dan (previously J. Robert Spencer). This Diana has a caustic, self-aware edge absent from Ripley's portrayal. Ripley exteriorized the character's mental anguish; the poised, lion-maned Mazzie plays things closer to the vest. While the impact of Diana's illness on her loved ones was always an integral part of the show, Mazzie's contained turn helps shift focus to the family dynamics.
Seeing "Normal" anew, what comes shining through is how well-crafted it is — Tom Kitt's music and arrangements, Brian Yorkey's story and lyrics, design work by Mark Wendland (set) and Kevin Adams (lights) and Michael Greif's inspired direction.
Yorkey's open-hearted concern for all these characters is endearing, but in his zeal to fully relay their challenges, he can wax precious. It doesn't help that Tom Kitt's rock-flavored score and the orchestrations by Kitt and Michael Starobin seem more bombastic than they did when Normal was staged in a cozier venue off-Broadway last year.
Rather than abandon his Broadway aspirations, “Wicked” producer David Stone made the extraordinary decision to send “Next to Normal” out of town to work out its kinks. A well- received run at Washington’s Arena Stage and $4 million later, “Next to Normal” has its Broadway opening with major rewrites and new songs replacing old ones. The result is a better show, though still one that’s easier to admire than love.
Ms. Mazzie, whose roles on Broadway include leads in “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Ragtime,” is, on her own terms, an equally strong presence. But even playing the mercurial diva in “Kate,” she has never seemed touched by the sort of temperament that could run away with her. She has always registered as a woman who is, on some level, practical and in control — of herself, if not her situation. If you were casting “Hamlet,” she’d be an automatic Gertrude but not a natural Ophelia.
The downside is that we never really experience the terrors lurking inside a tortured mind. Instead, the show focuses on the grief that played a central role in Diana's collapse and continues to haunt her. When the subject of her sorrow delivers the song "I'm Alive," the threat to her sanity is clear. This darkness is the show's most intriguing aspect, as if it were referencing Daphne du Maurier rather than the DSM. It's also the most underdeveloped and sentimentally resolved. For behind its surface grimness, "Next to Normal" ends up relying on soothing conventions.
When Next to Normal played at Off-Broadway's Second Stage last year, Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics lacked the character complexity necessary to tell his ambitious story satisfactorily. Yorkey, composer Tom Kitt, and director Michael Greif went back to work, and Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage admirably gave the show a second chance. The well-received reworked version has now been brought to Broadway. There is improvement, particularly in Act 1, which gets more swiftly to its story and better fleshes out its characters. Some radical shifts in tone have also been addressed. Nevertheless, the show still fails to persuade.
As emotions get drastic, however, the songs just aren't up to it. The music has unpredictable transitions with lovely overlapping harmonies, but composer Kitt falls back on monotonous singsong melodies for the real drama. Yorkey's lyrics keep trying to express profundities with banalities about light and right and night, but nursery rhymes are more inspiring.
The idea isn't unpromising, but Mr. Yorkey's glib book and artless lyrics boil down to an evening-long whine of let-me-tell-you-all-about-how-I-feel narcissism: If you think that I just don't give a damn/Then you just don't know who I am. Mr. Kitt has contributed a well-crafted pop score, but his soft-edged music is so lacking in toughness and grit that you never feel any connection between the songs and the painful emotions that they purport to depict. The result is a prettified portrayal of mental illness, complete with an unconvincingly uplifting grand finale.
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