Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 15, 2009
Next to Normal Music by Tom Kitt. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Musical Staging by Sergio Trujillo. Set design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Jeff Mahshie. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt. Cast: Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, also starring Aaron Tveit, Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler-Berat, Louis Hobson, Michael Berry, Meghann Fahy, Jessica Phillips, Tim Young.
So this resolutely well-intentioned musical at the Booth, which was written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and directed by Michael Greif, becomes that saddest of theatrical entities: the show you want to love but can't, filled with characters you want to love but can't, and who desperately want to love each other but can't. There's so much natural affection, spoken, screamed, and sung, that this should be the most affecting musical to hit Broadway in a decade. But like Diana, the overdrugged Goodman matriarch, you're left feeling nothing.
Unless, that is, you saw Next to Normal when it premiered at Second Stage early last year. In that case, you'll probably be feeling exasperation, frustration, and despair at how Kitt, Yorkey, and Greif could change their promise-packed show in so many little ways over the course of a year and an extra out-of-town tryout (last fall at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.), and wind up with something even farther away from where it needs to be. Just as the Goodmans' inability to understand how to repair what's broken in their lives doesn't stop them from trying, the creators' uncertainty hasn't stopped them. In both cases, the results are the same.
Diana (Alice Ripley), a bipolar depressive who gives up her steady diet of prescriptions for doses of shock therapy and then nothing at all, should be a representative of everyone torn between competing directions in an increasingly hectic world. Caught in a functional but unexceptional marriage to Dan (J. Robert Spencer), whom she once loved but married for reasons other than pure affection, and with a teenage daughter, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), and a son, Gabriel (Aaron Tveit), who don't provide the happiness she needs, Diana is ideally positioned as a symbol for modern aimlessness in our moves-too-fast society.
Kitt, who with this show and 2006's short-lived High-Fidelity is proving himself to be one of the brightest lights of newer musical theatre composers, has constructed a throbbing swath of steel-edged folk and piercing rock tunes, as well as fiery introspective melodies. But Yorkey's book and lyrics are trite, frequently filled with punch but seldom with point as they sketch out their simplistic survey course of the ravages of psychological illness. Greif and musical stager Sergio Trujillo remain more concerned with making full use of the three tiers of Mark Wendland's mental-industrial set and Kevin Adams's concert lighting than in shaping and toning a work that still lacks definite form.
Their work is about all that has not appreciably changed in the last year. Otherwise, some songs have been deleted, others have been added, and practically everything else has been tweaked in some way. But the net effect is neither noticeably different nor even positive. At Second Stage there was a sharp and smart act structure, with emphatic dramatic bookends. Now, the show peters in and peters out, as though, like Diana, it's embarrassed to admit its existence. Worse, the doctors (played here by a game but boring Louis Hobson) have been stripped of their most interesting musical material - it's as if no one knows or cares how to treat the characters who are, for better or worse, the figures around whom everyone else's problems revolve.
Yes, their material - like everyone's - needed adjustments, both minor and major. But as the doctors' treatments have done Diana no good, the various surgeries have not alleviated the underlying problem that this story about humans lacks any identifiable humanity. Because that hasn't been fixed, the show still seems so absorbed with stating its messages that it never develops any meaning. This is a medical lecture delivered by particularly chilly androids.
That includes Ripley, who despite giving the performance of her career is presenting nothing resembling a flesh-and-blood person. She emotes blindly and violently and sings passionately, but her efforts are concentrated more at animating inert lyrics ("Mountains make you crazy / Here it's safe and sound / My mind is somewhere hazy / My feet are on the ground") than giving life to a woman who's been disconnected from it for most of her adulthood.
Spencer, in the role Brian d'Arcy James (now in Shrek) originated at Second Stage, is abrasively milquetoast, reactive to the point of lethargy, coming alive only when Dan should be nearest to emotional death. Damiano has little to play but variations on Winona Ryder-esque whine-angst, but Chanler-Berat and Tveit (the latter singing the evening's most thrilling number, "I'm Alive") give terrific turns in roles that could too easily lapse into the respective clichés of the nobody who makes good and the Golden Boy who makes nothing.
Ultimately, however, no one has made anything notable of their grand aspirations to define what "ordinary" and "healthy" mean in present-day America. That requires invention, soul, and spark, three qualities utterly absent here. So it's hardly surprising that since the show's public debut at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival, it's shed its original title and since Second Stage has shed a major number of the same name: "Feeling Electric." Despite the copious amounts of positive current pulsing through the writing, staging, and performances, there's nothing at all electric about Next to Normal.