Before seeing Normal, Transport Group's new show at the Connelly Theatre, I might well have considered anorexia the least likely medical condition to inspire an effective musical. Now that I've seen Normal, I feel even more certain about it.
Yes, shows have been written about stranger medical topics. Brain surgery was central to William Finn's A New Brain, and Joseph Brooks's current Broadway musical In My Life has as its romantic leads a man with Tourette's Syndrome and a woman with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. With the right approach, perhaps any malady can make a musical?
That approach, though, is crucial, and must derive cleanly from the subject matter. Finn's exploration of the brain and its connections and responsibilities to the surrounding reality allowed him opportunities for the intellectual introspection and quirky rule-breaking he's so good at taking advantage of. And while Brooks's show has lemon orchards full of faults, they don't include the barriers he wisely constructed around his central characters so that they have to work to come to love each other.
Anorexia (or, more precisely, anorexia nervosa) is a different case. It's a solitary condition, more readily suited to tragedy in the way it erodes its victim to nothing in fierce defiance of that person's true wishes and goals. A burning desire for acceptance can only isolate one more from friends, family, and the pleasures that define any truly balanced life. It's not Oedipus, but it isn't necessarily that far removed.
To temper this basic problem, writers Yvonne Adrian (book), Cheryl Stern (lyrics), and Tom Kochan (music) don't focus on the victim. Instead, they present the story through the eyes of her mother, Gayla (Barbara Walsh), who watches her daughter Polly (Erin Leigh Peck) waste away despite her numerous rescue attempts. This is as appropriate a solution as could be devised.
Unfortunately, the writers haven't found a consistent, theatrical way to tell their story that highlights the problems of anorexia. In fact, the initially barren white stage (designed by John Story), swirling, white-clad chorus women (the costumes are by Kathryn Rohe), and noncontextual dialogue delivered directly to the audience all invoke a serious (if generic) concept musical. But the first two songs, an irony-laden uptempo about the imperfections of an outwardly perfect family and a patter-comedy song about the high-school conformity that sparks Polly's disorder, immediately announce the evening's fruitless search for an overarching tone.
So Polly gets a perfunctorily serious statement of her mindset, "Pretty to the Bone," which is too likeable to instill in us either sympathy or doom. Gayla's "Cooking for the Starving," in which she fattens up her family while her daughter gets still thinner, is disjointedly absurdist. Gayla's husband Robert (Adam Heller) fights against his own ineffectuality in the boxing fantasy "Father Fantastic," and her son Zachary (Nicholas Belton) reacts inwardly to watching her collapse from strain in "Breaking Things." The ideas are right and the music compels, but the songs' whimsical executions engage only our most superficial feelings.
Only two songs do better, but both occur too late to redeem the show: Polly's desperately anguished "Write This" is about the legacy of words she plans to leave behind, and the gorgeously autumnal "Just a Day" chronicles the aftermath of Polly's struggle and her family's quest to live one day at a time. These numbers, acutely emotional and measured in tone, strongly suggest the avenues the writers missed elsewhere.
But few of the other songs can succeed; they tend to interrupt the action instead of fortify it. The result is a show that reads better than it plays, and on the page many of the later scenes depicting Polly's increasingly grave condition are emotionally affecting in a way they never, ever are in the theater.
Jack Cummings III's distant, disaffected direction contributes to the problems. Cummings, in his element with last season's realistic, near-epic The Audience, can work well within concretely definable realms. But he lacks the proper expertise needed to design, shape, and energize this show, which - like most concept musicals - can never be completely explained on paper. Normal only comes to life in the most earthbound family scenes, which constitute but a fraction of the show's 100-minute running time.
Much of Cummings's other staging is fragmented, unfocused, and draws attention away from performers resolutely determined to give their all. Walsh intelligently portrays Gayla's fašade of happiness and her gradual breakdown, and sufficiently anchors a production with no use for the mooring. Belton finds an appealing post-adolescent innocence in Zachary, but Heller and Peck are still working to unlock more of their underwritten characters' secrets. The chorus women - Nancy Johnston, Toni DiBuono, and Shannon Polly - perform their myriad tasks and roles with verve.
Their focused energy is welcome, but Normal needs more in its songs and staging, both of which lack the visionary touch of artists who can make intriguing nothings into an even more intriguing something. If this production never wants for passion and sincerity, these qualities alone can't sate our appetite for something more filling.