Next to Normal
The set design and lighting are as integral to Next to Normal's impact as the music and book and the best way I can describe this production is to borrow a phrase from Frank Rich and call it "an organic entityin which book, score and staging merged into a single, unflagging dramatic force." It's not a perfect musical, certainly not in the same class as Gypsy or Dreamgirls, the two shows to which Rich applied his description, but it's brave and ambitious and the most interesting new musical I've seen in quite awhile.
I don't want to say too much about the plot of Next to Normal because the show's impact depends on learning about the characters and their situations gradually, as information is doled out by the book and lyrics. Suffice it to say that the central characters are a middle-class suburban American family whose existence is shadowed by the mother's mental illness and that in the course of looking at the experiences of this family Next to Normal raises questions about memory, pain, psychiatry, and what it means to be "normal."
I realize that sounds incredibly lame but when you see it presented on stage (including all the details I don't want to mention here) it feels amazingly real. Not because the show or performances are naturalisticin my experience most people don't sing at the top of their lungs as a means of having a conversation nor are their homes equipped with banks of color-shifting lights or sliding panels bearing half-tone illustrations of facesbut because they express an emotional truth which anyone can understand.
It's a great coup for the national tour to have Alice Ripley playing Diana, the mother struggling with mental illness. Ms. Ripley played the part both Off-Broadway (at Second Stage Theatre) and on Broadway and it's easy to see why she won the Best Actress Tony Award for this role. It's the key to the entire show's success and requires an actress who can be both intense and fragile, able to put on the happy face of the perfect housewife while also showing us the cracks in her mask. Asa Somers plays Dan, her husband, as a man who means well but is frustrated and confused about what he should do in the face of his wife's illness.
Emma Hunton is a revelation as the teenage daughter Natalie who seeks refuge from her parents' neglect in overachievement and secretly fears that she is becoming her mother. Curt Hansen achieves something marvelous as the son who is his mother's torment but also her fondest desire. Preston Sadleir has a nice turn as an unassuming stoner attracted to Natalie while Jeremy Kushnier creates convincing portraits of Diana's two very different physicians.
The rock-tinged music and lyrics of Next to Normal are not memorable in the sense that you leave the theatre humming the songs (in fact I can't recall a single tune from the score) but they are very effective in terms of dramatizing the character's emotions. The sound is as good as I've ever heard at the Fox (I could understand every word) and an onstage band (piano, guitar, bass, drums, cello and violin) is well balanced with the singers.
Next to Normal will continue at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis through April 24. Ticket information is available in person from the Fox Theatre Box Office and all MetroTix locations, by phone from 314-534-1111 and online from www.metrotix.com. For groups of 15 or more call 314-535-2900. For more information on the tour, visit www.nexttonormal.com/home.