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A CurtainUp Review
Next to Normal

Original Review at Second Stage
Next to Normal Gets a New Dysfunctional Family
Next to Normal New Cast
Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie, the new leads as of July 2010
The Pulitzer-Prize winning musical continues its open run on Broadway even as Alice Ripley is currently heading the national tour and Brian d'Arcy James who returned to the role he originated briefly before reprising his role in Time Stands Still which closed and is re-opening. The part of the troubled husband and wife are currently being played by real-life spouses Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie. The current Natalie is Meghann Fahy. Kyle Dean Massey plays Gabe.

Adam Chanler-Berat continues as Natalie's boyfriend Henry and Louis Hobson as the two doctors.

Mazzie adds is a more cool and distant Diana and Danieley a more intensely optimistic husband. If you've never seen the show, it remains well worth seeing. --e.s. November 10, 2010: The producers announced that the show will closed 1/16/11--however, a national tour will launch in Los Angeles beginning 11/23/10 with Alice Ripley reprising the role she originated.
Next to Normal Moves to Broadway
Nest to Normal
Same shirt and vest, different actor: Robert Spencer as Dan
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
I liked Next to Normal at Second Stage very much. An original concept. Excellent performances. Resonant pop rock score. Character and plot supportive lyrics. I was bowled over and deeply moved by its Broadway permutation.

The story is as realistically downbeat as before — in fact, more so. However, some astute changes have deepened and enriched this musicalized portrait of a family torn asunder by mental illness.

Diana's illness is now more clearly a case of chronic bi-polar disease which grounds its faint nod to an audience pleasing happy ending in reality. Instead of straining to add humor to some of Diana's episodes (shades of her losing her grip on reality during a shopping trip), that humor is now more subtle. And, rather than pumping up her electric shock treatments into a pulsing and somewhat melodramatic production number reminiscent of The Who Tommy, we have a less splashy but more effective and moving rendering of that deeply disturbing episode.

Best of all, Alice Ripley inhabits her character even more fully and touchingly than before. Except at the very beginning, she's abandoned the surface brightness for a more mordant and fearful persona. All but two of the Second Stage cast are aboard and, like Ripley, all are as good, if not better, than ever. Jennifer Damiano, especially, has ramped up the poignancy of her character, the smart but emotionally alienated Natalie.

What about the new cast members? While Brian d'Arcy James, Diana's original devoted but unable to communicate husband who's currently ogre-ing it up in Shrek, is a hard act to follow, J. Robert Spencer (Nick Massi in Jersey Boys) has put his own stamp on the role. Louis Hobson has ably taken over the practices of symbolically named Doctors Madden and Fine.

The revision which began with a production in Washington DC, also removed some songs, repositioned others, and kept the clever "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I" as well as the best, aria-like anthem numbers. To tag them as arias rather than songs befits the operatic sensibility of the book and the soaring music. That composer Tom Kitt and librettist and lyric writer Brian Yorkey view Next to Normal as an opera, or more specifically a rock opera, is borne out by the absence of a song list in the program.

Michael Greif and his designers have retained the excellent production values. The three tiered set fits well into the Booth stage, though like the three-story house of August: Osage County, people in the first two or three rows might have a bit of a neck straining looking all the way up to that third level.

Though the changes made between my first and second viewing of this show have erased my initial reservations about its move from Off-Broadway to Broadway, it's still not an all-audience pleasing musical. I'm sure musical show enthusiasts will want to hear much of the music over and over again, the songs aren't likely to be big on the cabaret circuit. I'm also certain that the show will, like another recent off-beat musical, Spring Awakening, have many productions.

To best sum up Next to Normal's audience appeal, think of Public Television's Reel 13 Movie Nights: First up, a traditional golden oldie crowd pleaser; then a late night film for the more adventurous independent film crowd. By the same token if you wanted to do a musical theater double header, you might follow a matinee of West Side Story or South Pacific with the less typical Next to Normal.

Come to think of it, you might prefer to see this Indie musical first and save the more light-hearted, dance-filled traditional show for dessert. Either way, who said Broadway is dead, if we have such diverse riches to choose from.

Broadway Production Notes
Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt; book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif with musical staging by Sergio Trujillo
Alice Ripley (Diana), J. Robert Spencer (Dan), Aaron Tveit (Gabe), Jennifer Damiano (Natalie), Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry) and Louis Hobson (Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine).
Sets by Mark Wendland Costumes by Jeff Mahshie Lighting by Kevin Adams Sound by Brian Ronan Orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Mr. Kitt Vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo
Music director, Charlie Alterman; music coordinator, Michael Keller
Stage Manager: Judith Schoenfeld
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Tuesday-Saturday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 PM.
Tickets, $25-$115.
Original Review at Second Stage, also by Elyse Sommer
I don't need a life that's normal—
That's way too far away.
But something. . .next to normal
Would be okay.
.— Natalie
Next to Normal
Alice Ripley and Brian d'Arcy James, in Next to Normal
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
This has been quite a season for provocative straight plays, with dysfunctional family dramas like August: Osage County and The Homecoming doing very well at the box office and even holding their own during the winter blahs. In Next to Normal, which just opened at Second Stage, the dysfunctional family story is told to the accompaniment of a throbbing pop-rock score by Tom Kitt and book writer Brian Yorkey's character defining and story propelling lyrics. Actually, the family in this musical is beyond dysfunction. They are dealing with heavy duty mental problems requiring extreme therapeutic interference. Not exactly the stuff of a crowd pleaser!

As Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), the over-achieving sixteen-year-old daughter of Next to Normal's troubled family sums up how desperate things are:
"When they haul her off and hook her up
To try to fry her brain out. . .
When you do the shit you have to do
To drain the stupid pain out. . .
When you're trying to disguise it all,
While your Father just denies it all,
And let's you sell him any sort of fable—
You're growing up unstable."

The main players in this O'Neill-like musical drama are Diana (Alice Ripley) a manic depressive mother; Dan (Brian d'Arcy James), her devoted but unable to communicate husband; and the already mentioned daughter and her good friend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat), a fellow student. Son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) embodies the tragedy that shattered the already fragile equilibrium of a too-young marriage.

Obviously this musical tearjerker lacks hummable tunes and catchy choreography. The program lists neither a choreographer or the usual song list. Yet there are plenty of arias that vibrate with feelings and Yorkey's lyrics enable the cast to sing about their hopes and despair intelligently and without awkwardness.

Dan leads the cast into a preprise of the show's anthem ("We've been living in the dark far too long,/an endless night/Let there be light. . ."); Diana describes her depression ("And some days I think I'm dying/ But I'm really only trying/Not to Crack"); Natalie pours out her teen aged angst ("Perfect/Just play it perfect/For one mis'rable Day/Make my life be okay. . ."); Gabe poignantly sings about his disconnect from the family ("For just another day. . ./For another stolen hour/ When the world will feel my power and obey. . .Feeling like I'll live forever");

Like Rent, the show with which director Michael Greif is most closely associated, this best fits the genre of rock opera. The metallic scaffolding that's become something of a Greif trademark might not seem suitable for this family drama but set designer Mark Wendland has smartly dressed up this scaffolded set to look like a suburban house. That set's three levels handily accommodate the various scenes at and away from this home not so sweet home that make this as much a soap-opoperatic take on Ibsen's Doll's House as O'Neill's Tyrone family saga. The excellent six-member band is also scattered at each side and on various levels.

As he demonstrated in Rent, and more recently in Grey Gardens, Greif has a way of galvanizing the energy of his actors and in Next to Normal, he has an outstanding group to work with. The smoky-voiced Alice Ripley is at once fragile and feisty as a woman whose innate emotional instability is tragically exacerbated by a marriage built on a weak foundation. It's hard to believe that Brian d'Arcy James, the abundantly praised young stoker in the meagerly praised musical Titanic, is old enough to convincingly play the father of a daughter thinking about college. But if you've seen the way he's lit up the stage of straight dramas as well as musicals since then, you won't be surprised to see that he matches Ripley's bravura acting and singing as the long in denial Dan.

There's no need for Jennifer Damiano to prove her ability to be a believable sixteen-year-old. The attractive and talented Damiano IS sixteen. However, she's a seasoned trooper and, like Ripley and d'Arcy James, she is a persuasive actor and with a terrific voice. Adam Chanler-Berat adds a warm and closer to normal element to the intense Natalie's life and both young people have you rooting for their friendship to blossom. Adam Tveit is a literally as well as figuratively haunting presence.

With all of Diana's mental problems the addition of a doctor is inevitable. Asa Somers ably handles not one but two doctors: the metaphorically named Dr. Fine who believes in lots of meds to make everything fine . . . and Dr. Madden who insists that electro-convulsive treatments are no longer the stuff of of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest ("Feel my fingers lightly on your face/Each electrode, every wire in place/Lie right back and let the work begin/Lay your life down, let the light right in") though a stunning but horrendous scene reminiscent of The Who Tommy says otherwise.

Though Yorkey's book allows its characters to experience enough change to reprise the "let there be light " opening number, all this emotional sturm and drang is more downer than upper. Unlike, Spring Awakening, the young romance here is more a way of echoing that of a young Dan and Diana and lacks the raging hormones and sexual sizzle that made that show fun despite tragic events. Thus, despite the dramatically potent staging, the fine performances and a laudable score and lyrics, Next to Normal is probably too realistically downbeat to "let there be light" vis-a-vis the rumors about its transfer to Broadway.

Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greef
Musical staging by Sergio Trujillo
Cast: Alice Ripley (Diana) Brian d'Arcy James (Dan), Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry) Jennifer Damiano (Natalie), Asa Somers (Drs. Fine and Madden), Aaron Tveit (Gabe).
Sets: Mark Wendland
Costumes: Jeff Mashie
Lighting: Kevin Adams
Sound: Brian Ronan
Musical Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin, Tom Kitt
Vocal Arrangements: AnnMarrie Milazzo
Music coordinator: Michael Keller
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with intermission
Second Stage, 307 W. 43 Street 212/246-4222
From 1/16/08; opening 2/13/08; closing 3/09/08.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer Feb. 9, 2008

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