Thursday, April 16, 2009

Next to Normal


Music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Dir. Michael Greif. Musical staging by Sergio Trujillo. Booth Theater.

Critics (except for Talkin' Broadway's Matthew Murray) think that the changes made to Next to Normal since its off-Broadway run and during its out-of-town tryout have improved the musical substantially. The problem many critics had with the show before was a tendency towards comedy and irony. Those scenes, including one featuring a meltdown at Costco, are now gone, and the critics find the show as a whole more focused and powerful. Where the critics are divided is in their opinion of Tom Kitt's music and Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics. Those who never liked it, still don't. Alice Ripley gets mostly raves as do the rest of the cast, though some critics miss Brian d'Arcy James (now in Shrek) in the role now played by J. Robert Spencer.

(Matt Windman) Simply put, “Next to Normal” is truly one of the most powerful, surprising and invigorating original musicals in recent memory, reminding us how it’s possible for contemporary musical theater to hook an audience entirely through the strength of its storytelling. This dynamic musical should not be missed.

The Daily News A+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) As the unmoored mother, Ripley gives a towering performance that leaves you tongue-tied for superlatives. In "I Miss the Mountains," she explores the show's probing question: What's worse - being pill-free and unpredictable or being drugged and numb? "Next to Normal" covers a challenging subject, no question. That it's hopeful and uplifting, not depressing, is more than a triumph - it's next to wondrous.

Washington Post A+
(Peter Marks) Will Broadway have the smarts and taste to anoint "Next to Normal" the best new musical of the year? Unveiled last year at off-Broadway's Second Stage, and polished in December to a smashing finish at Washington's Arena Stage, the show opened last night at the Booth Theatre as a prime example of the power of rock to tell heart-rending stories -- and of the value of reworking a musical until you get it right.

Lighting & Sound America A+
(David Barbour) Yorkey has trimmed his libretto, cutting the jarringly flamboyant episodes that threatened to wreck the first act, while retaining the powerful second-act twist that suggests Dan may not be entirely immune to Diana's problems. Michael Greif's direction no longer strains for big effects, preferring instead to probe the characters' scar tissue with laserlike precision. The superb cast is led by Alice Ripley's Diana, her apparently normal demeanor offset by a disconcertingly intense stare and an unsettlingly blunt candor. (She's perfectly capable of telling Natalie that she's about to head upstairs to have sex with Dan, or of characterizing Gabe to his face with one of the few four-letter words that still shocks.) On the rare occasions when she slips into rage -- as in the emergency-room aria "Didn't I See This Movie?" -- she is thoroughly commanding. Most of the time, however, she seems to be viewing her loosening grip on sanity with a detachment that is eerie to behold. And when she finally stares down the loss that has haunted her for a quarter of a century, the moment is all the more powerful for the absence of applause-chasing tricks. Ripley has done good work in all sorts of shows, but here she's working on another level altogether; for my money, this is the musical theatre performance of the year.

The New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) The differences between “Next to Normal” then and now are substantial enough to inspire hope for all imbalanced shows in need of rehabilitation.
The earlier version had the same convictions but had yet to find the courage of them. A self-protective archness kept diluting its intensity, as though the darkness might go down more easily if the show were perceived as social satire, a riff on the nasty shadows cast behind white picket fences... For the retooled version, first seen at the Arena Stage in Washington in November, they made the decision to toughen up and to cast off the last traces of cuteness. This meant never releasing the audience from the captivity of its characters’ minds. That decision has transformed a small, stumbling musical curiosity into a work of muscular grace and power.

Rolling Stone A+
(Peter Travers) Rock is alive and rolling like thunder in Next To Normal. It’s the best musical of the season by a mile (take that Billy Elliot), an emotional powerhouse with a fire in its soul and a wicked wit that burns just as fiercely. Composer Tom Kitt and writer-lyricist Brian Yorkey have broken the shackles of tired Broadway tradition, pushing it in new directions. OK, sometimes push comes to shove. But the effect is never less than mesmerizing.

CurtainUp A+
(Elyse Sommer) I liked Next to Normal at Second Stage very much. An original concept. Excellent performances. Resonant pop rock score. Character and plot supportive lyrics. I was bowled over and deeply moved by its Broadway permutation. The story is as realistically downbeat as before — in fact, more so. However, some astute changes have deepened and enriched this musicalized portrait of a family torn asunder by mental illness. Diana's illness is now more clearly a case of chronic bi-polar disease which grounds its faint nod to an audience pleasing happy ending in reality. Instead of straining to add humor to some of Diana's episodes (shades of her losing her grip on reality during a shopping trip), that humor is now more subtle. And, rather than pumping up her electric shock treatments into a pulsing and somewhat melodramatic production number reminiscent of The Who Tommy, we have a less splashy but more effective and moving rendering of that deeply disturbing episode. A+
(Jo Ann Rosen) Director Michael Greif gives Next to Normal an operatic tone when his characters sing duets, trios, and quartets from different rooms and floors. This story line is no straight walk to the doctor for a painful talk and a cure. Greif puts his characters—and the audience—through a psychological maze, and comes up with a production that feels truthful. Of course, it helps that the material is rich. With very little dialog, Yorkey has filled Next to Normal with lyrics that feel conversational and contemporary. He's given the plot depth with unanticipated turns, and provides the love and tenderness needed to make an unpredictable ending thought-provoking. Kitt's music supplies range, gliding naturally from one song into the next, then adjusting the tempo and mood, always taking his audience to the exact emotional spot he wants.

(Adam Feldman) As Diana in the surprising and moving Next to Normal, Alice Ripley has a voice like steel wool: It’s tough and cloudy at once, and it scrubs to the core. There’s something slightly off about Ripley’s singing—the notes sometimes claw their way up from just under pitch—and this raggedness is perfectly attuned to the mental distress of her character, a psychotic suburban mother guiltily aware of the burden her illness brings to her family. There is nothing glamorous or camp about this unlikely musical-theater heroine, and Ripley is riveting.

Theatermania A
(Dan Bacalzo) You may want to bring along some tissues to Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's deeply felt musical Next to Normal, currently on view at Broadway's Booth Theatre under the surehanded direction of Michael Greif, as the production takes the audience on an amazing emotional journey that plumbs the depths of despair while also offering a vision of hope. What has evolved from three prior incarnations of the show -- the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival version entitled Feeling Electric, the 2008 Off-Broadway production at Second Stage and a more recent revised mounting at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage -- has resulted in a version of the musical that is simply outstanding.

Entertainment Weekly A
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) While Next to Normal is essentially a rock musical, Kitt's music incorporates classical, folk, metal — even a waltz (the giddy ''My Psychopharmacologist and I,'' which features a hilarious prescription-inspired riff on Rodgers & Hammerstein's ''My Favorite Things''). But the music is no mere mishmash. Notice how deftly the score parallels the characters: Dan's songs are steady and placid, with the occasional burst of forcefulness (''I Am the One''), while Diana's are cacophonous, layered, hard, and completely unpredictable — a confrontational power-chord-driven number one minute (''Do You Know''), a whispery, music-box-style lullaby the next (''I Dreamed a Dance''). The couple's elusive teenage son, Gabe (Aaron Tveit), has insidious and creepy songs, while those of troubled 16-year-old Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) are like Diana's, but on a smaller scale — she's discovering she has a few things in common with her mom, not the least of which is a charming, exceedingly patient love interest (Adam Chanler-Berat, looking far hipper in a ruffled blue tuxedo shirt than anyone has a right to). Broadway audiences have been hungering for original musicals, so it's no surprise that Next to Normal is beginning to garner Tony buzz (Ripley is already a Best Actress favorite). And there's one award we're sure the show would win...if it existed: most tears, wadded-up tissues, and runny mascara produced by a Broadway musical.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) What these performers all have in common are powerhouse voices, able to negotiate a pulsating pop-rock score. Actually, pop-rock doesn't do justice to Kitt's often haunting melodies and Yorkey's intelligent lyrics. Both are infused with a theatricality that helps define who these people are. Under Michael Greif's sharp direction and the kinetic musical staging of Sergio Trujillo, the actors move with ease — and sometimes gymnastically — around designer Mark Wendland's multitiered set. It quickly transforms itself from suburban home to doctor's office and serves as the nesting area for the musical's small band. The stage has been blindingly lighted by Kevin Adams, whose array of powerful, colored lights give off an unnerving sense of dislocation that suggests the fragile state of the lead character's mind.

Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) And with the new serious tone comes an expanded horizon of a kind unusual for Broadway: Instead of lavish arrays of conspicuous waste to show the ticket buyers where their dollars went, we get dreams, visions, delusions, myths, ghosts. And even, heaven help us, ideas. It's as if, after sleeping through years of the right wing's unremitting efforts to reduce religion to issue-based materialism, our theater suddenly woke up and remembered that philosophy, spirituality, and an acceptance of the invisible as an integral part of our lives have always belonged to the theatrical essence. Next to Normal (Booth Theatre), an ambitious, challenging, and often moving small-scale musical, toys with delusion and vision through a device that makes it tricky to summarize; I'll just say that author Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt use the device honorably and meaningfully, and that director Michael Greif draws graceful effects from it.

The Bergen Record A-
(Robert Feldberg) Like “Rent" and “Spring Awakening,” this is a musical driven by a dynamic pop-rock score, which allows the characters to give full-throated expression to their feelings. Fitted perfectly to Tom Kitt’s music are lyrics by Brian Yorkey – the show is almost entirely sung – that probe the characters’ minds and motivation with great psychological understanding. Director Michael Greif, who also staged “Rent,” has given the show a fast pace and a stark, visceral feeling, along with several stunning theatrical moments. They include the revelation of a past tragedy that has shadowed the family over the years, and lets us see Diana and Dan from a completely different angle. Most pivotally, perhaps, the show has the devastatingly effective Ripley. Rather than present Diana as half-crazy, the actress portrays her, heartbreakingly, as a woman desperately pursuing sanity, trying to find the person she once was.

Variety B+
(David Rooney) Onstage almost throughout, Ripley never loses sight of Diana's warmth and self-deprecating humor, on the one hand, or of her despair and scared confusion, on the other, no matter where her wild mood swings land. There's tremendous poignancy in her lost state, and in the complicated layers of feeling that bind her to Dan. Spencer is equally strong. Something of a Dean Jones look-alike, his Everyman-nice-guy appearance and solicitous behavior toward his wife play beautifully against his suggestions of impatience and defeat or his outbursts of righteous anger, making his journey no less moving than Diana's. Similarly, Damiano's hostile vulnerability is well paired with Chandler-Berat's sweet stoner vibe. Tveit's character has gained in texture since Second Stage, adding shades of ambiguity that rescue Gabe from angelic blandness or cookie-cutter youthful recklessness. Often lurking in the shadows, he's a bewitching, almost destructive force, a benevolent pusher who keeps Diana hooked on dangerous memories while conspiring in her most questionable decisions.

(Roma Torre) Much of the material is set to music, some of it really quite exceptional. And it's performed by a dazzling ensemble of actors and musicians with stunning intensity. These are incredible talents who find subtlety and depth in what could easily be stock characters... Not to go bi-polar here, but there are some problems with the show. The music tends to be overly repetitive and there are unnecessary contrivances in both characterizations and direction. Still, "Next to Normal" is an extraordinary work for the most part and it would be "insane" to dwell on any flaws.

New Yorker B-
(Unsigned) After the antidepressants and the ECT, you do yearn for a smiling face, a lifted heart, and just a smidgen of frivolity. It used to be that the musical was meant to be an escape from care; now it’s meant to be an escape from escape: all singing, all dancing despair.

Chicago Tribune B-
(Chris Jones) There are times when "Next to Normal" seems to inhabit such a pharmacologically savvy universe that the non-Zoloft popping folks in the room might wonder on what neurotic planet they've landed. Everyone—doctors, patients, family members, authors—seems to be into some kind of drug here, and the show doesn't always contextualize that gestalt as it might. I also think the scrambled dramaturgy of Yorkey's book—structured to maintain a certain level of suspense over the fate of the family's son and its effect on everyone's mental health—needlessly convolutes some scenes. It sometimes gets in the way of our empathetic involvement. In Yorkey's poetic lyrics, simple truths about marriage, life, parenting, fear are often exquisitely expressed. But sometimes a more strained dramatic fog has to lift. Still, on Broadway this season, this provocative little show is like a fearless indie movie surrounded by a sea of mostly enjoyable but largely predictable blockbusters.

Bloomberg News C+
(Jeremy Gerard) Superbly cast and staged by Michael Greif, “Next to Normal” is a distinctly modern musical. Lights frequently glare into the eyes of audience members. Mark Wendland’s skeletal, multitiered set features the black-and-white image of a house that resembles a newspaper photograph blown up so all the dots of ink turn it into a kind of Rorschach test. That’s an apt description of the show itself. How you respond will depend a great deal on your tolerance for a musical in which love is fearlessly twisted beyond recognition.

American Theater Web C+
(Andy Propst) Diana's return to "normalcy" or at least a state "next to normal" is made all the more difficult by not only the severe memory loss caused by the ECT, but by one of the other factors in her illness. She's not only bipolar and depressive, she also suffers from delusions, and one in particular regarding the loss of a child early in her marriage to Dan. And it's in the depiction of this aspect of Diana's journey to health that the musical truly stumbles. The manifestation of Diana's illusions seems almost too gimmicky and manipulative. Further, the logic behind the phantoms that plague Diana don't always add up; if they're of her own creation, it stands to reason they have no psychology of their own or the ability to act independently, yet, in "Normal," such anomalies exist. Initially, theatergoers may be willing to set such thoughts aside, but as the piece progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. One reason may be that musically, the show does have something of a wearying effect. Although Kitt's score is diverse – there are moments when the range of musical idioms that the characters have is a direct result of their own unique tastes in music – it relies almost exclusively on thundering rock anthems for the moments in which characters express their anger. The result is that many of the most emotionally intense sequences become repetitive in sound and tone, if not in thought.

USA Today C+
(Elysa Gardner) Yorkey's open-hearted concern for all these characters is endearing, but in his zeal to fully relay their challenges, he can wax precious. It doesn't help that Tom Kitt's rock-flavored score and the orchestrations by Kitt and Michael Starobin seem more bombastic than they did when Normal was staged in a cozier venue off-Broadway last year. Still, you can't help but admire the compassion that Normal's creators afford their subjects, or be moved by the performances... These assets don't make Normal as daring or profound as some critics have suggested. But there's no denying it has the heart and humanity that make musicals meaningful.

New York Post C-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) The bar is set high early on with "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I," in which lyricist/book writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt quickly list a litany of side effects ("Headaches and tremors/And nightmares and seizures . . . ") while the melody quotes "My Favorite Things." It's a common reference, but it's used very effectively as the playful tweaking of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic echoes John Coltrane's variation, just like Natalie's preference for the scripted rigor of classical music contrasts with her boyfriend Henry's (Adam Chanler-Berat) taste for jazz improvisation. Alas, the pop-rock score never offers so many interpretative layers again, though it's still an improvement on Kitt's last Broadway effort, 2006's disastrous "High Fidelity."

Newsday D+
(Linda Winer) The problem, unfortunately, is still the score by relative newcomers Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. The playful songs still hook us in with wit and charm, including a waltz that asks, "Who's crazy," and happily chirps, "These are a few of my favorite pills." As emotions get drastic, however, the songs just aren't up to it. The music has unpredictable transitions with lovely overlapping harmonies, but composer Kitt falls back on monotonous singsong melodies for the real drama. Yorkey's lyrics keep trying to express profundities with banalities about light and right and night, but nursery rhymes are more inspiring.

Back Stage D+
(Erik Haagensen) The estimable Alice Ripley makes Diana more compelling than she's written and sings with power and precision. As Natalie, Jennifer Damiano ingeniously finds as many different ways to be damaged as she can, and Adam Chanler-Berat is charming if a bit one-note as her insistent suitor. Aaron Tveit as Gabe provides a riveting stage presence and an impressive voice but is still stuck playing a melodramatic symbol. J. Robert Spencer is a more boyish and brittle Dan than Brian d'Arcy James, who played the role at Second Stage, lacking the latter's emotional richness and quiet authority. Louis Hobson manages to register in the bland roles of two doctors. Greif stages the show smartly on Mark Wendland's triple-tiered metal set that, as evocatively lit by Kevin Adams, imaginatively represents the family home, Diana's mind, and other locations. Greif does, however, allow some of the ballads to dilute the show's swift pacing. As Broadway becomes increasingly hostile to the presence of serious musicals, one roots even harder for those that make it there to succeed. Next to Normal, alas, still misses the mark.

Wall Street Journal F+
(Terry Teachout) The members of the cast all act better than they sing, especially Ms. Ripley, who sang flat throughout the preview that I attended. I liked Michael Greif's slick, fast-moving staging, Mark Wendland's pop-art set and the orchestrations, by Mr. Kitt and Michael Starobin, which make colorful use of the six-piece onstage ensemble. I wish I had something else nice to say about a show whose palpably good intentions fail to keep it from being an earnest bore.

Talkin' Broadway F+
(Matthew Murray) 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.

AMNY A+ 14; The Daily News A+ 14; Washington Post A+ 14; Lighting & Sound America A+ 14; The New York Times A+ 14; Rolling Stone A+ 14; CurtainUp A+ 14; A+ 14; TONY A 13; Theatermania A 13; Entertainment Weekly A 13; Associated Press A 13; Village Voice A- 12; The Bergen Record A- 12; Variety B+ 11; NY1 B 10; New Yorker B- 9; Chicago Tribune B- 9; Bloomberg News C+ 8; American Theater Web C+ 8; USA Today C+ 8; New York Post C- 6; Newsday D+ 5; Back Stage D+ 5; WSJ F+ 2; Talkin' Broadway F+ 2; TOTAL: 271/26 = 10.42 (B)

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