Next To Normal Musical Theatre Review - Where Grief, Rock & the Modern Family Collide

"Next to Normal" runs at the Ahmanson Theater through January 2, 2011

The Plot

Diana ( Alice Ripley), as lots of things wrong with her. She has been chronically depressed for over sixteen years. Diana’s husband, Dan ( Asa Somers), has been patient and understanding and has tried everything he can think of to help his wife overcome her illness. Despite his best efforts, dozens of doctors and a sea of medications, Diana never seems to get any better.

Diana finds new resolve when she discovers that her daughter Natalie ( Emma Hunton) is being courted by a boy, good hearted slacker Henry ( Preston Sadlier). Diana goes off all her medications, determined to re-engage and to stop missing out on her daughter’s life. This decision soon leads to a few great days, followed by an attempt at suicide.

(l to r) Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley & Asa Somers in "Next to Normal"

Taking a cue from her mother, Natalie secretly begins to self-medicate to dampen her growing feelings of neglect and sadness. Meanwhile Henry tries tenaciously to keep Natalie on the right track.

Finally, Dr Madden ( Jeremy Kurshnier) suggests something radical, electro-shock therapy, to which Diana and Dan agree. However, after two weeks of the treatment, it remains to be seen exactly how much of Diana’s soul and self have survived.

"Next to Normal" runs at the Ahmanson Theater through January 2, 2011

The Good

Loved the set. Rock star lighting and chain-linked fencing screams a story about rebellion and confinement. The family’s world, a three leveled, bare pipe framework with its sliding gates and disappearing stairwells works as a home and also as a labyrinth of sorts. This set is stark and aggressive, but empty, like the lives of the people who live in it. Kudos to Scenic Designer Mark Wendland and Lighting Designer Kevin Adams on a very successful collaboration.

Emma Hunton in "Next to Normal"

I enjoyed the performances of the two young leads. Both Curt Hansen and Emma Hunton do a fine job in the roles of Gabe and Natalie respectively. Because the role of Gabe calls for some "overt eccentricities," Hansen's exaggerated body language worked for me. Hunton gave the most consistent and balanced performance of the evening. Her teen angst leveled well with her private pain and clear-headed view of the fragile state of her family. Coupled with a great vocal performance, Emma Hunton was my “favorite thing” about this show and a pleasure to watch. Well done.

The Bad

I have to confess. Before the show, as I stood in an unusually long press line, I caught earshot of the name Alice Ripley, the show’s headliner. I didn’t know the name and felt a slight pang of guilt: didn’t do any research. After seeing the show, however, I felt a bit validated in my preference of going into a show pure, as a clean slate.

Alice Ripley in "Next to Normal" at the Ahmanson Theatre, downtwown Los Angeles

I didn’t care much for Ms. Ripley’s voice. Even though the Tony Award Winner’s voice is rich with a fullness and vibrato of a classically trained vocalist, understanding Ms. Ripley’s pronunciation proved to be challenging. Similarly, Asa Somers’ vocals seemed ill-matched for the amount of falsetto required for the role of Dan. In fact, though each performer’s vocals have a refreshingly unique texture, the combination of these voices does not ever add up to an interesting tapestry of sound. Or perhaps I’m simply underwhelmed by the vocal arrangements and/or songs themselves.

I was at odds with the staging. For most of the show, the cast seemed to keep a mandatory three foot distance from one another. If the essence of drama is struggling against one’s circumstances, what would be more interesting thanwatching these characters literally and physically trying to overcome the distance between each other and failing, over and over again.

"Next to Normal" at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles

There was lots of standing and singing. I could have used a bit more acting with less reliance on the lyrics. In fact, performers did not feel like they were portraying real people, but rather a magnified embodiment of an idea: grief, angst, longing, denial. The style of this production was decidedly affected, almost operatic in its formality. This choice didn’t work for me, partly because this piece is so contemporary, and mainly because formal does not automatically translate as dramatically compelling.

Ever-present Loss

My date felt the performers were trying too hard; I felt as those they were just bursting to be released. I don’t quite know if we were talking about the same thing. We agreed that the show did get better in the second act, but we also agreed that the second act is too late to win the audience’s emotional investment. We agreed that Next to Normal has an outstanding premise, packed with potential. Unfortunately, this production does not quite do it justice.

Preston Sadleir & Emma Hunton in "Next to Normal"

The Verdict

If you are a fan of the show, go. There was electricity in the air, a palpable excitement from the audience tonight. Judging by the standing ovation tonight, you would be in good company and well satisfied with the show. For the rest of you, don’t be seduced by the Tony Award or the Pulitzer Prize laurels. Check the Broadway recording out from the library and acquaint yourself with the vocal stylings of Alice Ripley, and then decide.

Just one girl’s opinion…

Next to Normal is running now until January 2, 2011 @:

Ahmanson Theatre

at the Music Center

Downtown Los Angeles

135 N. Grand Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90012

For more information call: 213-628-2772

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