Friday, April 3, 2009

Next to Normal (Booth Theatre)

By Molly
rock musical • original • kick-ass performances by the powerful but tiny cast of 6 • really depressing • missing something

Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer in Next to Normal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

BOTTOM LINE: An exciting new musical with a lot to like...and well, a lot to dislike.

Musical theatre fans rejoice–a brand spanking new, modern musical starring the irresistible Alice Ripley is now on Broadway! Everyone else, remain seated. I know Next to Normal will amass a following of devoted fans who connect with this rock musical as if it was written for them. And I know I will get flak for not jumping on board. It's not that I don't understand, and it's not even that I don't like the show because really, there are a bunch of fantastic things about Next to Normal. There's just something missing for me, some nagging disconnect in the reality, perceived reality, and the way the plot unfolds. I want to believe these people are real but unfortunately I just can't get there. Let's start with a little background.

Next to Normal premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre last year and then played for a while at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Before this, the show was crafted on a smaller scale in New York and also ran for a bit in Seattle. All this time, the creative team and producers worked to perfect the show, getting it ready for the inevitable Broadway production we have today. I'm sure it's gone through a lot of changes in that time. Next to Normal is the story of a dysfunctional family; Diana (Alice Ripley) is a mother with mental illness, Dan (J. Robert Spencer) is her stable husband, Gabe (Aaron Tveit) is their son and Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) is their daughter. Diana's condition is getting worse and rendering her all but unable to maintain a normal life. The family is left to deal with their mother's addiction to meds, visits to various shrinks, suicide attempt, and eventually electroshock therapy which leaves her unable to remember much of the past.

Directed by Michael Greif (Rent) and with music by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt (High Fidelity), Next to Normal is a rock opera that never stops rocking. Nearly every word is sung and the band sits on stage next to the action. And the music is hands down the best part of this theatrical experience. Next to Normal feels very much like Rent in the sense that the music rocks hard and the pulsating score is consistent through the story, changing with the tone of the moment. And like Rent (which also tackles a sad and gritty storyline), the music is there as an outlet for these characters' emotions, not just for theatrical show. You'd never call these songs "numbers" or "dittys" as they hold much more weight than that. Check out the songs on the show's website for a taste of the score.

Another positive of this production are the performances, specifically the vocals. Everyone sings this show with absolute perfection, equally weighted and important to the story. It's wonderful to listen to. Acting-wise, Ripley and Damiano are riviting. Ripley is charmingly disturbed and Damiano, as the 16-year old just trying to make it through adolescence, evokes such pain and weakness through a collected, determined exterior. To their credit, Tveit and Adam Chanler-Beret as Natalie's boyfriend Henry do their best to create unique characters that support the story even though they aren't given much to work with in the script. Louis Hobson as the various doctors is adequate although his part isn't very deep at all. Spencer, as Diana's husband, lacks adequate emotion; the ex-Jersey Boy sounds supurb but I never believed he was anyone's husband or father, doting or otherwise.

If you're a already a musical theatre fan, stop reading now and go see Next to Normal. You'll like it, you'll connect, you'll cry, you'll appreciate the uniqueness this show has to offer in a consistently cookie-cutter genre. It deserves credit for breaking the norm. But if you're interested in the other side of the coin, I'll be happy to tell you why this show doesn't work for me. It mostly has to do with the minimalist, representational approach to the story-telling (which actually, I'm usually all about). The set (also like Rent) is a three-storied structure of scaffolding representing the family's home. The ground floor includes furniture that gets pushed to the front of the stage when it's being used and pushed back when it's not. The other scenes take place in the bare area in front of the house with a few set pieces or props to indicate the setting. Basically, the scenes are "suggested" to the audience and we use our imaginations to connect the dots. In theory, this technique should work, and if the characters were as real and grounded as the plot lends, I wouldn't have had a problem with the minimalistic would've been an artsy storytelling choice that didn't muddy the plot.

But sadly I didn't, for one iota of one second, believe that any of these characters were real or their story true. The gravity of this situation, especially at the end of the play, wouldn't make anyone sing, let alone look on any bright side of life. The plight this family goes through is so damn depressing I'm not sure one could just soldier on and look on the bright side, and at least not be severely screwed up. Seriously, it's a downer. Maybe this story requires stronger acting choices, more depth to these characters to bring their drama to life. Next to Normal introduces a profound set of circumstances and never really delves into how the characters feel about them. Sure, we hear the lyrics and feel the drive of the music, but the actors don't truly personify people going through a struggle (Damiano not included, she's mostly dead-on with her character's emotion). Maybe they're too busy singing. And maybe this story would be better told without music. I really wanted to connect with this show, and through the music I did feel somewhat attached. But in the end, Next to Normal didn't leave me feeling resolved or restored, it simply left me feeling sad and disjointed.

(Next to Normal plays at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm & 7:30pm. The show runs 2 hrs. 20 min. with one 15 min. intermission. Tickets are $36.50-$111.50 with a limited number of $25 rush tickets available at the box office starting at 10am. For tickets visit For more show info visit


gotmywings said...

your loss. i would suggest seeing it again.. like an REM album...multiple hearings/viewings are rewarded, and the first experience usually evokes a very surface reaction to the difficult, often unpleasant nature of the issues that are being explored.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Molly- I was interested to read your review of N2N. I saw the production at Arena Stage in DC. I felt that the performances were PACKED with emotion. J. Robert Spencer's portrayal of the husband was outstanding. I thought the way he tightly controlled his emotions in order to be "the pole holding up the tent" was superb. And, the reveal at the end that he was suffering just as much was very powerful. I was uplifted at the end that there was a tiny hope that they all could find their individual ways back to each other. If you decide to see it again, knowing the ending, watch how Dan Goodman's quiet strength and deep love for his family is apparent in every scene. I hope that the fact that Spencer is playing a quiet, self effacing role does not make him invisible for Tony consideration. Alice Ripley will get a nomination for sure! Jan Roth

Anonymous said...

I don't know, I saw Next to Normal and I was bored out of my mind. I thought the songs were mostly forgettable and J. Robert Spencer was pretty dull. Jennifer Damiano was great though. And I must have really missed something because I understand that she was battling mental illness, but I just wanted Alice Ripley's character to shut the fuck up and quit complaining.

Molly Marinik said...

thanks for your comments! theatre is subjective and i was sure my post would be met with dissent (re-read the first few sentences). it's cool to have other opinions here to give a well-rounded view. i saw the show last year at second stage and was excited to see it again, hoping my impression would change, but i felt pretty much the same about it. and let's back up before everyone gets all defensive and whatnot...i said i liked the show, i just had some beef with the plot.

Dan Dinero said...

I’m also going to STRONGLY disagree with Molly. I didn’t find the show depressing at all- I found it exceedingly hopeful. These characters are all struggling to feel- to feel loved and needed, or to feel pain and despair, or to feel sadness and heartache. They are struggling with their emotions, and I find this struggle extremely moving. I’ve seen this three times now- at Second Stage and then twice on Broadway, and it has gotten better each time. To my mind, this is one of the most honest Broadway shows, musical or play, which I have seen in a long, long time. By which I mean- this is a show about what it means to be alive,, and to be human; it exemplifies (to me) what theatre should be.

I think Molly’s characteristic as it being a musical that “rocks hard” is a bit misleading- while I remember the off-Broadway version as being quite loud and “rocking hard”, I think the musical has morphed into something much quieter and more subtle. There are a few moments of “hard rocking”, but I think these moments are far outweighed by the bulk of the score, which is softer and has a more “unplugged” feeling. The music is kind of hard to classify actually- perhaps a mixture of folk, country, alternative, pop, rock, and yet none of these at all.

I guess I understand some of the complaints that it is hard to identify with these characters- my mother said she felt the same thing after Act 1. But after the show was over, she suggested that perhaps the “lack of feeling” in Act 1 actually helps highlight what Alice Ripley’s character is going through- she is not being allowed to feel anything. And only when she (and the rest of the cast) begin to feel their emotions (as painful as the process is) can we in the audience feel anything for them. (My mother LOVED this piece- she was really moved by it, and was actually surprised that she enjoyed it as much as she did).

One of my nagging concerns was the implausibility of some of the medical treatments, especially ECT. To my surprise, my mother actually has a student whose mother underwent ECT at some point within the last ten years or so. After the show, we talked a bit about this situation, and the parallels in the musical. And in doing some more research, I have the feeling that the events in Next To Normal actually aren’t as far-fetched as they might seem.

Other than [title of show], which has (sadly) closed, I think Next To Normal is BY FAR the BEST new musical of the season. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it is an incredibly rich piece- one which can be enjoyed the first time you see it, but will get even better with a second and third viewing. The audiences at the theatre seem to be incredibly involved- while there is sometimes nervous laughter, especially at the beginning, and the show is directed so as not to allow for applause after every song, the ovation at the end seemed extremely heartfelt. And it is also an ORIGINAL musical, one not based on a movie or existing songbook (something that cannot be said about any other Tony nominee for Best musical). Please- go see it.

Anonymous said...

i have not seen the show, so i guess i can't really agree or disagree with you. but with only so much i know about the show, i am very interested in your review.
i think the uniqueness of this show is that there is not much glamor to it. and as you say right at the end of your review, you don't feel the relief and the resolution. maybe that's the intention. it makes you keep thinking and finding your personal resolution.
i am making plan to see this show. maybe i will think differently after seeing it. but i guess it's a production to view again and again.

Anonymous said...

hm. those are some interesting thoughts. Being a musical theatre lover, I almost left the site when you said to just go see it, you'll love it, but I was really intrigued that someone couldn't like the show. I do see where you're coming from. The set is incredibly minimal, but that's the beauty of it because it contrasts with the incredibly complex life led by the Goodmans.
Also, I don't think you're giving Ripley enough credit. I mean, she won the Tony. Don't misjudge me, I've yet to see it, but from the clips I've seen on the Tonys, YouTube, etc, her character feels incredibly real. I'm not criticizing you, I just wanted to throw in my two cents.

Esther said...

I'm on the side of those who think Next to Normal is the best new musical of the year. It's an original story and a compelling look at how mental illness devastates a family - the whole family, not just the person who's ill. And I thought the performances were powerful - Alice Ripley is so pained, J. Robert Spencer at his wit's end after caring for his wife for so long, their daughter so afraid she'll end up like her mother. I don't find it an attack on psychiatry as much as a realistic depiction of how difficult it is to treat mental illness, despite everyone's best effort.

Anonymous said...

the biggest problem for me are the lyrics which are so full of cliches and easy answers...i can't believe the almost Hallmark quality of these words. next to normal is somewhat of a breakthrough on the subject of mental illness but it doesn't come close to dramatizing the language of mental illness. it honestly feels like the writer went online and read a bunch of the forums on the bipolar database and other such sites and then just transfered what he read to the lyrics. it feels like a show someone who doesn't know anything about mental illness would write. there is such a lack of understanding. it is all surface and easy jokes. i think this show will fade into obscurity. there are better shows about this topic.

gary said...

Dear Molly,
Thank you for writing a review and starting a conversation about N2N. I have to believe that raising awareness of the reality of this illness by screaming it from the rooftops of a Broadway theater are what the creators and actors have in their hearts. I’ve read the feedback and comments above so seriously and free from judgment or attitude because I’ve wondered what the response would be from people in the audience who don’t have a relationship with the realities of mental illness. Not to argue, or criticize, or be angry about your lack of confidence that the story is even possible, I had to stop and tell you that when I heard this soundtrack for the first time, it was as if someone had turned my life into poetry and music. – to tell my story to the world and make them listen.
I’ve only heard this show – I doubt I’ll ever be able to see it, but I don’t have to. I’ve lived it. I would be the husband role—and I could sing the shit out of that part. A friend gave me this soundtrack a few months after I finally had to leave my partner last spring after 15 years of living with his escalating depression/borderline personality disorder/bi-polar II disorder. When I shut the CD off for the first time, soaked in tears, exhausted from mourning, and completely astonished that every word of this story reached to my core – and his. It communicates our experience like a dictionary defines the words in your writing. Only someone who has experienced it could have written this. We couldn’t communicate our lives as well as this show does – right down to every detail of the drugs and doctors and memories and love. We even got married in Portland. But they’ve found the words. They put mania into the music; I can feel the pain in the wails of her song, “you say you hurt like me, …YOU DON’T KNOW!” You don’t know what it’s like to live this way.
But God, I thought I did for sure. I was suffering so too. And still- incomparable to his suffering – just like N2N shares with you.
I don’t know how an average audience member can comprehend lyrics from the husband like, “I don’t sit at work just waiting for the phone to ring,” or “why do I leave on the light?” or “every day this act we act gets more and more absurd,” or “mine is just a slower suicide.” They can’t. And if they’re only moved by what they do understand about what those lines are truly communicating, they would be emotionally destroyed for a moment to have someone like me describe where those lines come from. They can’t know what it would be like to live with a constant threat of suicide – being ready every day coming home, to what I might find, after a simple day at work. “why do I leave on the light?” –why do I stay. Or the feeling of desparate helplessness in a lyric like, “I know I have to help her, but hell if I know how,” I could have written the words to that song at a real turning point in our life – we were in the low 50s (number of ECT treatments)- he was driving me away and I was ready to give up. But I didn’t and went back in to stand by him, and try again, and take care of him. And we had a few more good months.
It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever known. It would be to you also.
I had a hard time listening to her sing these lyrics too at the beginning –because she would sound happy, sarcastic, …”normal.” I didn’t agree that she should have emotions – that wasn’t accurate to me. And then it was all gone. She was suffering. Lost. In pain.
He’s telling the story of a real man, Molly. She’s telling the very real story of a very real man.
It couldn’t possibly be told any clearer. And it’s still so far from making you feel and believe it. Good. I hope you never ever have to truly appreciate this piece of art. If you did, you might be lucky enough to survive too.
I do have hope. There is a light. I hold it high every night.
Gary, Portland, OR