A musical that really goes to unexpected places, that’s NEXT TO NORMAL. Yes that’s the name of the show. Actually it’s about bipolar disease, the darkest side of the mind and the dark ways in which we perceive it and treat it. Not a predictable or even plausible subject for a musical. But as it unfolds here in an uncanny, sensitive book by Brian Yorkey, the story is suspenseful and provocative.
To make the experience even more extraordinary, most of the narrative is told through song, usually searing rock ‘n roll tunes that are anything but sentimental. Tom Kitt’s compositions sound more like RENT than any of the nostalgia-laden music that’s typically called musical comedy.
And the cast is, without exception, remarkable. Most memorable is Alice Ripley as the family matriarch who, according to her family and her psychiatrist, suffers from bipolarity. But Ms. Ripley’s buoyant singing along with the natural, easy connection she makes with her material makes those observations about her seem misdirected. When we do recognize that something is terribly askew, it’s because of a little oversight in her behavior which turns an endearing family dinner into a shocking disturbance.
As husband and father, the family’s backbone, Brian d’Arcy James is precise and compelling. Never overstated or sentimental, he too discovers his part in this sadly dysfunctional family. And Jennifer Damiano, Aaron Tveit and Adam Chanler-Berat as the teenagers deliver chilling musical performances while demonstrating nuances of character. But the most unexpected roles are portrayed by Asa Somers as a series of psychiatrists, especially the one who winds up performing a rock ‘n roll number that’s frightfully electric.
Indeed, NEXT TO NORMAL, which begins as an offbeat musical the likes of SPRING AWAKENING, delves relentlessly into psychological truths with uncanny realism. And here, the lively music keeps thoughts of sadness at bay.
As directed by Michael Greif, who helmed both RENT and GREY GARDENS, the production is both emotionally charged and intellectually challenging, making for a near perfect evening at the theater.
By: Isa Goldberg
2econd Stage Theater
307 West 43rd Street
1 212 246-4422
Extended thru March 16,2008