New and Improved Next to Normal

next-to-normalI first saw the musical Next to Normal back in January 2008, when it was in previews for its Off Broadway run at the Second Stage Theater. I had some reservations at the time, but there was also much to admire, in particular a second act that ultimately became gripping and powerful. I returned to the show later in its off Broadway engagement, and it had become tighter and had clearly improved. But the authors correctly recognized that still more work was needed. The musical resurfaced earlier this year for an engagement in Washington, then made the move to Broadway, where it opened this past spring and went on to win three Tony Awards, including Best Score and a Best Actress award for the terrific Alice Ripley. Happily, the creators have further strengthened Next to Normal and the musical now playing on Broadway is one I can enthusiastically recommend. Yes, a few minor reservations remain, but, by evening’s end, I found myself enormously moved by the raw emotion and power of the piece. As you may know, Alice Ripley’s lead character suffers from bipolar disorder. It may not sound like the subject matter for musical theater. I found myself responding more to what I think is Next to Normal’s bigger theme of a struggling family dealing with real human problems. Bipolar disorder happens to be the problem for one of the family members, and it triggers much of what transpires. So, to me, Next to Normal is really a musical trying to tackle a more universal theme of a family in crisis. In that context, it is effective and often quite beautiful. The strong points of Next to Normal are many. It starts with the Tony Award-winning pop-rock score by Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It is a score that got better every time I heard it, with several songs clearly registering and sticking with me. My appreciation for the score has grown further after listening to the CD. While there is some spoken dialogue, the score is a comprehensive one -- the CD features two discs and thirty-seven cuts. My slight reservations relate to the pacing and flow of the first act. When I first saw the show in its preview period Off Broadway at Second Stage, I felt that parts of the first act played like a series of thematically related songs and sketches. While everything has improved since then, that problem has not been totally solved. There are a number of short scenes and musical moments, and I did find my mind wandering a bit at times. But there was also enough to involve me and draw me into the proceedings, along with some definite musical highlights, which all helped to compensate for any shortcomings. One major improvement from the Off Broadway production was a change in the Act One finale. The old finale, a hard rock “Electric” number, never worked for me, and the new ending of Act One is a big plus. From there, Act Two pretty much soars, as the show moves toward its touching resolution with real power and beauty. In each viewing, I have been impressed with Michael Greif’s staging and with the overall look of the show, which features a multi-level set and some effective lighting. The performances are superb, starting with Alice Ripley, who dominates the show as the troubled mother and wife. She must communicate all her character’s issues, confusion, and emotions, plus she is required to sing a lot of demanding music, and she is exceptional and very deserving of her Tony win. J. Robert Spencer is somewhat reserved and low-keyed as Ripley’s husband, and he is a less forceful personality than Brian D’Arcy James, who played the role Off Broadway. But his performance works, and his approach to the role makes his emotional meltdown at the end exceptionally effective and moving. Aaron Tveit should have received more award recognition for a strong and often charismatic performance as the son; Jennifer Damiano is first rate as the daughter, and I very much like Adam Chanier-Berat’s rather lovable and endearing work as Henry, the daughter’s boyfriend. Next to Normal may not quite be perfect, but it is ultimately an enormously powerful, bold, and often heartbreaking new musical. The best musical theater often shines a light on the subject that can speak to all of us: the human condition. Watching the closing moments of Next to Normal, that light was bright and illuminating, and it makes for wonderful theater. - James Miller Next To Normal is at The Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th St. jim_miller.jpgMr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.