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Next To Normal

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alice Ripley
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Put away the Xanax - there's a more-effective cure for the ills of modern living. This one isn't about what goes into your body, but rather what comes out of it. If you find yourself flustered by the prospect of attending your daughter's piano recital or even getting out of bed in the morning, the tonic you're looking for is good, old-fashioned song. Release your frustrations in a tidal wave of screeching vocals, and relief is just around the corner.

Not convinced? Then Next to Normal, the new musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey at Second Stage, is not for you. Its leaps of faith in extolling the virtues and dangers of mental therapies familial, medical, and shock are every bit as dramatic as the leaps of intervals that so openly characterize the throat-stretching score. But while this forcefulness makes the show one of the most energetic since the kinetic feast of Jersey Boys, it doesn't endear you to the people trapped at its center - or, indeed, do much to prove they're real people at all.

In Yorkey's libretto, the Goodman family at the show's center is less a collection of suffering suburbanites than a squabbling band being profiled by VH1's Behind the Music while on the creaky last legs of its farewell tour. Distrust, depression, and drug use are commonplace. Historical recreations of happier times are critical for understanding Where It All Went Wrong. And, of course, everyone at least has one psyche-crippling problem preventing them from leading the "regular" life they all so desperately crave.

Bipolar depressiveness has all but imprisoned mother Diana (Alice Ripley) within the terrors of her own mind. This has romantically and sexually frustrated husband Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) who can now barely leave her alone during the day. Neither can relate to teenage daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), who has a secret boyfriend (Adam Chanler-Berat) she's ashamed to introduce to the weirdos at home. Apparent-black-sheep son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) is adored by his mother, scorned by his father, and hardly known by his sister at all - for reasons that push them all farther apart.

Jennifer Damiano and Brian d'Arcy James
Photo by Joan Marcus.

No one, however, possesses the spark of humanity that might suggest there's more going on inside these characters than five separate master's theses in dysfunction. (The sixth cast member, Asa Somers, plays two doctors, the only well-adjusted people in the show.) The agony is so ripe and so frequently plucked that you're given the suspense-killing sense that there's no way out of this for anyone. That this doesn't discourage the performers from strutting, posing, and wailing whenever they have the chance does little to discourage comparisons to a concert.

Further complicating matters is the scope of the Goodmans' woes, which is forever at odds with their presentation: A few genuinely tender scenes are lost amid the blatant blare of desperate showstoppers (the first-act finale, in which Diana's electric treatments are juxtaposed with Natalie's own short-circuiting life, being a chief example) or numbers elevating moments of questionable narrative importance (piano practice, a trip to CostCo, visits' to doctors offices) to major centerpieces of the score. This all makes this potentially wrenching expedition into the darker recesses of the mind more overbearing than emotionally overwhelming.

In fact, it less recalls Broadway's current pop-tuner trend-setter Spring Awakening than it does In My Life, Joseph Brooks's demented (but not wholly undelightful) vanity venture from 2005. That show aimed for roundly chaotic romantic comedy, and took far too many bumpy byways to survive the trip. Next to Normal is considerably tighter and more serious, but not appreciably more affecting: Yorkey's book is packed with too many goings-on and too little cohesion for the show to play as much more than an aggressive, impersonal assault on society's urges to overmedicate.

Michael Greif's Rent-inspired direction, which makes ample use of the many levels and alcoves of Mark Wendland's unnecessarily imposing towering scaffold set, and Sergio Trujillo's frantic musical staging, don't allow any additional room for events or actors to spread their wings. Ripley, reining in her usual rafter-ripping belt to define a woman of reluctant restraint, and the hard-driving Tveit are the best of the lot. But even they seem only just able to keep up with the show spinning around them.

The only thing given room to breathe is Kitt's outstanding rock-folk music, which Kitt orchestrated with Michael Starobin to string-heavy perfection and is thrillingly played by Mary-Mitchell Campbell's six-piece ensemble. The tunes here equal and often surpass those Kitt provided for his short-lived 2006 adaptation of High Fidelity, but assume the sadder, starker strains of the darker subject matter. The strumming of a guitar or the dull beating of drums transforms into an accelerated heartbeat, a crushing violin solo charts a fall from the heights of giddiness, a burst of synthesizers drag you into the urgent surge of the senses spiraling out of control.

Kitt's compositions are unpredictable and unforgettable, striking at the soul and arousing passions in ways the rest of Next to Normal does not, but can't surmount a book, lyrics, and overall look dedicated to tired, tedious convention. "I don't feel like myself," Diana tells a doctor checking up on her latest pill regimen. "I mean, I don't feel anything." With everything but Kitt's music, that's a dilemma you understand all too well.

Next To Normal
Through March 16
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission
Tickets online: Second Stage Theatre

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