BOTTOM LINE: an uninspired story with mediocre music; a few decent moments and a talented cast keep it from being a total bust; only recommended for those who really like musical theatre and are jonesing for something new.
If I'm wrong, please tell me why, but I thought Next To Normal was a story that didn't need to be told...especially not through song. And trust me, there's a lot of song in this rock-opera for the Prozac generation. Luckily, the gifted cast of 5 graciously sing their faces off, giving the score some much needed depth and feeling. Brian d'Arcy James and Alice Ripley (they play the parents) have intensely good voices and Jennifer Damiano (she plays the daughter) really shines in this role.
The plot begins with a mother, father and their teenage daughter lamenting their craptacular lives. The mom is on pills, the daughter is angsty and the dad ignores it all (wait, you've heard this before?). It's kind of like American Beauty without the quirky characters and interesting story. But then the audience finds out the twist, the reason for the dysfunction...this was my favorite moment of the evening...I was glad I didn't see it coming so I'm not going to tell you what it was lest you choose to see Next to Normal yourself. Suffice it to say, things get worse for the fam and the mom ends up attempting suicide. She's admitted to the psych ward and given electro-shock therapy (cue Chief throwing drinking fountain through window). After the treatments she has totally lost her memory and has to try to piece everything together again (McMurphy didn't have that hard of a time...Cuckoo's Nest references end now). Really, the story is just sad and at the end it's still sad and no one has really grown.
Next to Normal is a hefty production with a seasoned creative team and it shows. The set is pretty great...it's a three story structure that sort of resembles scaffolding...the band is perched on the sides of the second and third stories and the actors utilize all three levels easily, giving the space a cool movement and feeling of fullness. The set looks a lot like the set used for Rent and I'm not saying this has anything to do with the fact that Michael Greif (Rent director) directed this, and Anthony Rapp (original Mark in Rent) assisted him. The lighting and sound design are also spectacular.
I really want to like this musical. And giving everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, this is its first real production after being presented at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival and then spending time in development in Seattle. And I did see it at the beginning of an off-Broadway run so if it happens to get a chance on Broadway, a lot could potentially change. See this show if you really dig musical theatre or if you're a rock opera buff.
(Next to Normal plays a limited run until March 9 at Second Stage Theatre on 43rd and 8th. Tickets start at $84. Student rush tickets are $15, available 30 minutes before show time and youth advance tickets are $26.50 for anyone 25 and under. 2st.com for tickets and more info.)