Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s hit “Next to Normal” is anything but normal. It is an innovative, real, and emotionally honest rock musical that left me walking out of the theater belting the lyrics and discussing the compelling themes. With complete honesty, I tell you that this play goes down in my personal list of all time must-sees. It provided me with everything I expect to gain from any show I see, and more---meaningful discussions, catchy tunes, relevant themes, and an overall feeling of personal clarity and rejuvenated energy. I honestly can’t say enough good things about this show. What I most appreciated was its audaciousness to venture outside the typical box of genres and stories, as well as its authenticity-nothing about this play was Disney-fied. And still, “Next to Normal” also had all the innate energy and grandiosity of a Broadway musical that makes theater-goers want to get up and sing and dance. If an audience-wide standing ovation at the end is any indication that this play is marvelous, then I don’t know what else is.
Currently playing at the Bank of America Theatre for a limited time-span (only 2 weeks) as it tours around the U.S., theater-goers are fortunate enough to have Tony winner for Best Actress of this musical, Alice Ripley, play the lead role of Diana, as well as the rest of this amazingly talented cast share the stage. Directed by Michael Greif, “Next to Normal” is a story about a dysfunctional family in which a mother’s suffering from bipolar disorder (among other questionable mental illnesses) creates havoc and unrest for the remaining members of the household. It becomes apparent that one family member’s struggles do not stand in idle; they quickly penetrate throughout the household and propel each member of the family to go through their own personal struggles and instabilities. The emotional waves that both Diana, her husband Dan, and their daughter Natalie all go through were incredibly authentic and realistic, and reflected the way in which I imagine most relationships would be given these specific circumstances.
As a young woman myself, I could relate well to Natalie’s (Emma Hunton) teenage angst, her need for attention and love, and her frustration over her mother’s remiss nature and her own need to step in and be the motherly figure of the household. Dan (Asa Somers), Diana’s husband, fully earned my empathy in his unrequited love for Diana and his exceptional patience and calm in trying to find a palpable solution to his wife’s struggles. His selflessness was remarkable, yet he also was able, in a sincere way, to portray his own need for love and support as well. He sacrifices much for his family, yet must also grapple with the truth that there isn’t any figure in his life to make sacrifices for him. Somers did a remarkable job in making his character aggressive and in-control, but also lost and emotionally available.
Gabe (Curt Hansen), the dead child who is resurrected in Diana’s imagination, deftly portrays the human need to be acknowledged and never forgotten. Gabe’s comparative strength and resilience was a strong foil to the fragility and vulnerability of Dan, Natalie, and Diana, though admittedly Gabe at time also experiences his own susceptibility in his struggle to always remain in Diana’s mind. His contrasting presence on stage, both in song/voice and physical space was well designed and executed by director Michael Greif. Curt Hansen does a fine job in representing the perfection and ideals of a world that might have been but is not, while the living characters represent the reality of a spontaneous, imperfect world that we each as humans inevitably experience.
Much to my delight, Yorkey was not afraid to take a big leap and explore contentious issues. The concept and ethics surrounding overmedicalization was brought up in the show, as Diana tests out various medications and psychiatric treatments in efforts to solve her mental disorder(s). In Ripley’s incredibly passionate rendition of “I miss the Mountains,” she describes her deep desires to be free and real, and not mask her real identity through an indefinite series of drug treatments.
Diana misses the highs and even the lows, because they represented her freedom to traverse her own life and not be victim to the control of chemicals and doctors. Alice Ripley’s deep, more rounded/closed voice (in this song especially but throughout the entirety of the play, as well) reflects the emotional pangs and heartache Diana undergoes in an incredibly organic way, one that tunes together her voice with her body and mind. Ripley’s unconventional, operatic voice that seemed to come from somewhere deep within her body rather than from somewhere closer to the surface of the mouth is one of the main reasons why Ripley stood out in my mind. Her voice lucidly reflected the tiring efforts and pain her character was drowned in.
Writer Yorkey was also incredibly courageous in his efforts to pursue all possible outcomes to the murky situation of Diana’s health. In the end, Diana walks out on her family. She gives up on her drug and E.C.T. regimen and seeks complete freedom, a life in which she is not chained to doctors or hospitals or to the guilt of knowing she is a sub-par wife and mother. While Natalie and Dan unsuprisingly react distraught and defeated, brimming with inner rage and earning the audience’s sympathy along the way, there is also a sense of catharsis for this family. Though Dan (Asa Somers) is disheartened, as he should be, for the sacrifices he made in ceaselessly standing by Diana when in the end she left him to his own loneliness, he also represents great courage and flexibility. His sincere honesty with himself and his shortcomings are evident in his character’s portrayal, and his ultimate decision to see a psychiatrist himself is admirable and honest. Somers played the role of Dan flawlessly. He effortlessly balanced the strong and manly head of-the-household status with the soft, needy, slightly sentimental aspects of his character. He executed this balance seemingly effortlessly, ultimately heightening the integrity and honestly of the play.
Similarly, Natalie (Emma Hunton) nailed her character in every way possible. She was a living, breathing teenager with all the needs and desires and emotional instability that teenagers possess, all the while playing the part specific to the play. Her intelligence, struggles, and emotional maturity made her character incredibly versatile and honest.
Creatively, the director parallels the circumstances going on in Diana and Dan’s life with that going on in Natalie and Henry’s life. Natalie is apprehensive to get close to Henry (Preston Sadleir) because she fears she will soon turn into her crazy, out-of-control mother, and she doesn’t want anyone in her life to witness that downward trend. Henry, like Dan, though, is unrelentless in his willingness and availability to stand by her side and never go away. Both men are alike and incredibly admirable for these reasons, and the women, too, parallel each other in their fear of the unknown and their fear of leaving their heart wide open for whatever will come. Director Michael Greif enabled these parallels to matriculate through well-designed staging.
The set itself was done creatively and in a way that was both versatile and functional. A three-tiered transcluscent set of metal barring, with a backdrop of various bright lighting allowed for the stage to take upon multiple setting. The set was so open and vague that scenes could easily flow from one scene to the next. The presence of the orchestra on stage was also innovative and exciting to watch, as was the well-coordinated costumed color schemes .
I only had very few critiques for the show. Alice Ripley’s voice was so unique and unconventional that at times it sounded a bit off. Her consistent operatic, deep vibrato sometimes made me wonder if she was actually sick, since she did not sound like the typical Broadway actor’s soothing-to-the-ears type of sound. The uniqueness of her voice sometimes thus distracted me, and prevented me from focusing fully on the thoughtful character she developed. Additionally, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that losing a baby of only 8 months old could have a penetrating, unenduring effect on a mother. While I admit my naiveté since I am only in my young 20’s and lack the visceral understanding of what it means to birth a child, I still had a hard time understanding and having unmitigated empathy for Diana’s loss, precisely because Gabe never lived long enough to develop and render a distinct identity and personality. I wondered how Diana visualized Gabe decades later at an older age, and why the writer chose the loss of a baby and not of a more grown child or adult to create this jarring impact on Diana. Ultimately, the symbolic meanings behind Gabe weren’t always outrightly apparent in the show.
But enough of that. This play is just too good and impactful to dwell on minor tweaks. It is not often during an intermission to experience audience members all around talking with each other about the play’s themes and not letting the content of the play go by unnoticed, but in this show, that is exactly what happens.
The exhausting emotional roller coaster that defines “Next to Normal” is well worth every turn of the ride. Don’t be surprised to find yourself bawling through certain parts and laughing hysterically in others. It is a heart-wrenching, honest, provocative play with a stellar cast of characters who lift the script off the page and ignite an atmosphere of fervor and sensation.
Individual tickets are on sale now and range in price from $32 ‚Äź $95.
The performance schedule for is as follows:
Tuesday, April 26 at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 29 at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, April 30 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m, Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 4 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 6 at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, May 7 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday, May 8 at 2 p.m.