For better or for worse, "Next to Normal" is usually shorthanded as "the musical about the crazy woman." It's accurate -- the central character, Diana (Alice Ripley), has a severe bipolar disorder -- but only up to a point.
The show, which opened on Broadway last night after last year's run at Second Stage, is equally concerned with the way Diana's husband, Dan (J. Robert Spencer, aptly negotiating the transition from "Jersey Boys"), and her children, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) and Gabe (Aaron Tveit), contend with her condition.
In short, it's about one woman's mind and about how a nuclear family handles fission.
The bar is set high early on with "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I," in which lyricist/book writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt quickly list a litany of side effects ("Headaches and tremors/And nightmares and seizures . . . ") while the melody quotes "My Favorite Things."
It's a common reference, but it's used very effectively as the playful tweaking of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic echoes John Coltrane's variation, just like Natalie's preference for the scripted rigor of classical music contrasts with her boyfriend Henry's (Adam Chanler-Berat) taste for jazz improvisation.
Alas, the pop-rock score never offers so many interpretative layers again, though it's still an improvement on Kitt's last Broadway effort, 2006's disastrous "High Fidelity."
Musicals thrive on heightened states -- but this one is about a woman so drugged up that she can't feel a thing.
"I miss the dizzy heights/All the manic, magic days/And the dark, depressing nights," Diana sings when she throws out her pills. In fact, her demeanor barely varies throughout.
Ripley gives a bravely contained performance -- no "Snake Pit"-style, award-friendly histrionics here -- as her heartwrenching Diana appears equally bewildered and saddened by her own fragile instability. 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.
Michael Greif's sleepy direction doesn't help. Typical is his over-reliance on Mark Wendland's banal three-tiered set, all chrome tubing and walls of lights. And, yes, a character does sing a power anthem while fiercely gripping a railing.
In the end, the family accepts that getting "close enough to normal to get by" may be good enough for them. Unfortunately, close to good may not be enough for theatergoers.
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.
Such emotional rigor is a point of honor for “Next to Normal,” sensitively directed by Michael Greif and featuring a surging tidal score by Tom Kitt, with a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. With an astounding central performance from Alice Ripley as Diana Goodman, a housewife with bipolar disorder, this production assesses the losses that occur when wounded people are anesthetized — and not just by the battery of pharmaceutical and medical treatments to which Diana is subjected, but by recreational drugs, alcohol and that good old American virtue, denial with a smile.
That theme was also at the center of the production that opened Off Broadway last year (at the Second Stage Theater) under the same title and with most of the same cast, technical team and music. Yet the differences between “Next to Normal” then and now are substantial enough to inspire hope for all imbalanced shows in need of rehabilitation.
The earlier version had the same convictions but had yet to find the courage of them. A self-protective archness kept diluting its intensity, as though the darkness might go down more easily if the show were perceived as social satire, a riff on the nasty shadows cast behind white picket fences.
One bizarrely chipper sequence found Diana having a consumerist breakdown in a Costco store. Fantasies involving her husband and doctors exuded an exaggerated flippancy. And the electric-shock therapy sequence that ended the first act had the crowd-courting campiness of a vintage shock-rock band playing a big arena. Even Ms. Ripley, fine as she was, sometimes seemed to be performing with a bright, conspiratorial wink.
It was as if the creative team felt that its audiences wouldn’t stay with it unless they were allowed to take an irony break from time to time. But the comic exaggerations and distortions had the opposite effect. Pull back from “Next to Normal,” and you start to see that its plot isn’t so different from those of dysfunctional-family movies of the week about healing and forgiveness. As for the what-lurks-within-the-rec-room aspect, there has been a surfeit of such exposés — in film, television and literature — since “American Beauty” took the Oscar a decade ago.
But the creators of “Next to Normal” realized they had something of authentic and original value beneath the formulaic flourishes. For the retooled version, first seen at the Arena Stage in Washington in November, they made the decision to toughen up and to cast off the last traces of cuteness. This meant never releasing the audience from the captivity of its characters’ minds. That decision has transformed a small, stumbling musical curiosity into a work of muscular grace and power.
The plot is exactly the same. And I’m reluctant to describe it in detail, since the show staggers its revelations about what triggered Diana’s illness and its impact on the other members of her family: her husband, Dan (J. Robert Spencer, in the role originated by Brian d’Arcy James) and her children, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) and Gabe (Aaron Tveit). Besides, simply to describe what occurs — which is mostly reflection and recrimination with a few visits to doctors — doesn’t do justice to the excitement this show generates. And I’m sure medical and psychiatric experts would take issue with some of the details of Diana’s condition.
But as one of her two doctors (both suavely played Louis Hobson) says, there is no neat description or explanation for what she suffers from. And “Next to Normal” gives full weight to the confusion and ambivalence that afflict not only Diana but also everyone around her, including Natalie’s new boyfriend, a sweet stoner named Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat, who is both credible and eminently likable).
Mr. Yorkey’s lyrics are more likely to take the form of questions than answers. Mr. Kitt’s score — while sustaining the electric momentum of a rock opera — keeps shifting shapes, from dainty music-box lyricism to twanging country-western heartbreak, suggesting a restless, questing spectrum of moods. (The songs are propelled by the same rock ’n’ roll jaggedness and vitality that animated Duncan Sheik’s score for “Spring Awakening,” another musical about love and pain.)
Even the outsize, fractured projections of a house and (later) a face — bringing to mind the comic-strip pointillism of Roy Lichtenstein — on Mark Wendland’s tiered industrial set feel newly appropriate. (Kevin Adams is the lighting designer.) This show is less about connecting the dots than about life as a state of fragmentation.
None of this would count for much, though, if the cast members didn’t convey this disconnectedness with the fluidity and intensity that they achieve here. That Mr. Spencer presents Dan as a weaker soul than Mr. James did doesn’t mean he’s giving a weaker performance. The character’s cheerful neutrality, which pervades even Mr. Spencer’s clear tenor, summons the evaporating spirit of a man who is slowly erasing himself.
As the teenage son who is both angel and demon to his mother, Mr. Tveit is contrastingly (and necessarily) as charismatic and ineffable as a figure in a dream, the kind who seems to have the solution to everything until you wake up.
The notion that personality is fragile, always on the edge of decomposition, is exquisitely reflected in Ms. Damiano’s astringent, poignant Natalie, a girl who lives in fear both of being invisible to her mother and turning into her. As for the Mom that everyone loves and loathes, Ms. Ripley is giving what promises to be the musical performance of the season. Her achingly exposed-seeming face and sweet, rawness-tinged voice capture every glimmer in Diana’s kaleidoscope of feelings. Anger, yearning, sorrow, guilt and the memory of what must have been love seem to coexist in every note she sings.
None of these are particularly comfortable emotions. In combination they’re a dangerous cocktail. But to experience them vicariously through Ms. Ripley is to tingle with the gratitude of being able to feel them all. Diana is right when she sings that “you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.” Nor do musicals have to bubble with cheer to transport an audience as this one does.
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.
Over the course of its engagements at Off Broadway's Second Stage and then Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., extensive improvements have been made. Most notably, a couple of jarring songs have been replaced, and the wry detachment that undermined the show's dramatic heart has been softened into gentler, less distancing humor. In its take on themes of love, loss, family, illness and grief, the musical recalls William Finn and James Lapine's "Falsettos," and with its modest scale and universal sentiments, it should have a similarly long life in multiple incarnations.
Kitt's score remains uneven, with a few too many talky, undershaped songs whose pretty melodies trail off or get muddied by overworked counterpoint. And Yorkey's lyrics still fall prey to Lifetime cliches of mental illness: "Who's crazy?," "Catch me I'm falling," "It only hurts when I breathe." But there are a number of punchy anthems that persuasively describe what the characters are feeling, conveyed with bracing conviction by a terrific cast under Greif's propulsive direction.
Design contributions also have evolved impressively. The Booth stage is a snug fit for Mark Wendland's three-tiered set, which combines stark scaffolds with Benday-dot pop-art panels to depict an ordinary suburban home, its windows giving way to giant portraits of the eyes of unstable mother Diana (Alice Ripley) as the chaos in her head dominates the life of the house. In addition to allowing a clear view of the hard-working six-piece band, it provides a symmetrical playing space to offset the frenetic movement of Greif's direction. And Kevin Adams' dynamic lighting packs its own adrenaline charge, bathing the stage in dazzling blues, purples and reds or chilling whites.
The show tracks Diana's path as she slips off the rails after a long period of relative calm, prompting fresh assaults in an ongoing battle of trial-and-error psychopharmacological solutions. But as the smoky-voiced Ripley reflects in one of Kitt's most affecting numbers, "I Miss the Mountains," ironing out the delusional highs and devastating lows can be an empty substitute for living.
It's impossible to outline the chief contributing factor to Diana's illness without spoiling a key perspective-shifting revelation, shrewdly withheld in Yorkey's book. But the show acquires its robust dramatic shape from the ways in which Diana's decision to go off her meds affects the people closest to her.
That group includes supportive husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer), enabling son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) and unsettled daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), who threatens to repeat the rocky patterns of her parents' relationship with her undaunted boyfriend Henry (Adam Chandler-Berat). As it becomes clear that any period of tranquility will be temporary, Diana is convinced by her doctors (double-cast Louis Hobson) to try hypnosis and electroshock therapy. But when a complete cure remains elusive, the family braces for change.
Onstage almost throughout, Ripley never loses sight of Diana's warmth and self-deprecating humor, on the one hand, or of her despair and scared confusion, on the other, no matter where her wild mood swings land. There's tremendous poignancy in her lost state, and in the complicated layers of feeling that bind her to Dan. Spencer is equally strong. Something of a Dean Jones look-alike, his Everyman-nice-guy appearance and solicitous behavior toward his wife play beautifully against his suggestions of impatience and defeat or his outbursts of righteous anger, making his journey no less moving than Diana's.
Similarly, Damiano's hostile vulnerability is well paired with Chandler-Berat's sweet stoner vibe. Tveit's character has gained in texture since Second Stage, adding shades of ambiguity that rescue Gabe from angelic blandness or cookie-cutter youthful recklessness. Often lurking in the shadows, he's a bewitching, almost destructive force, a benevolent pusher who keeps Diana hooked on dangerous memories while conspiring in her most questionable decisions.
Each of the four family members gets at least one powerful signature song (Diana's "I Miss the Mountains," Dan's "I Am the One," Natalie's "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" and Gabe's "I'm Alive"). These render the emotional stakes lucid in a first act that strides through its exposition with brisk assurance. And the increasingly sorrowful second act channels the frustration of an inexact science -- in which the path toward healing is inevitably an imperfect one -- into wrenching drama. Even with the inherent hope of a closing number titled "Light," the musical deserves credit for refusing to tie things up in too-consolatory fashion.
Its choice of subject alone is reason to admire "Next to Normal." Too many small-scale musicals think even smaller -- the trite growing pains of "Glory Days," the self-congratulatory artistic masturbation of "[title of show]," the wishy-washy sentimentality of "The Story of My Life" -- so it's unsurprising they disappear fast. But the creative team here poses a potentially hackneyed question -- is it better to feel pain or smother it? -- and gives it freshness, urgency and emotional integrity.