The Kennedy Center is currently hosting two very different productions that nevertheless call themselves Broadway musicals.
There’s the big, splashy, big voice, big sets, big show, big bucks (theirs and yours) “Wicked” heading through August at the Opera House, with tickets as hard to come by as a debt ceiling solution. And then there’s “Next to Normal,” with big voices, but also with big ideas, a show horse of an entirely different color and progeny.
Both probably are indicators of where Broadway might be headed, a two-way street where there’s room for both.
“Next to Normal” is such a surprise in content, intent and intensity that to call it merely a “musical” would be a serious understatement. More of a rock opera—most of the dialogue is sung in one way or another—it deals with a dysfunctional, contemporary American family struggling with its bi-polar mom at the center of its universe.
With such an inferno of psychological stress to deal with, there’s not much room for fun and funnies, and only the barest of razor-sharp ironies and tight, to the point humor. But what you end up with is something entirely original and unlikely. A frayed Cinderella of a show which began as a one-song fragment, expanded to a full-blown show, had a difficult off-Broadway run and came to be part of an Arena Stage season two years ago. Returned to Broadway, won Tonys, and—a rarity—a Pulitzer Prize, and a Tony for its star, the amazing Alice Ripley.
Ripley is on hand for the road company now at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater and if you get a chance, (July 11 is closing time) go see “Next to Normal.” It’s heart-breaking, punch-in-the-mouth, astonishing theater.
Ripley plays Diana, a diagnosed bi-polar mom, former architect, and huge bundle of unpredictable and often destructive behavior which has the whole family on constant edge. This has been an over-a-decade life situation for this family—the infinitely patient husband, the gifted daughter who feels invisible, her astonishingly kind boyfriend, the son, and of course Diana, feverish, coltish, dramatic, desperate, sexy and fascinating in a glow-in-the-dark way that people with mental illness can sometimes be. She is the dark sun of the house, along with her dark son.
The folks who put this together have some experience with “serious” musical shows—Michael Greif directed the smash hit “Rent,” a rock musical with a La Boheme touch on urban artists and their lives.
“Next to Normal,” if it has antecedents, seems a stage cousin to “American Beauty,” the dark, bitter, funny cinematic riff on suburbanites. But “Normal,” with a book by Brian Yorkey and a rock score that’s more like a condition and state of mind than tuneful or lyrical, isn’t concerned with class, place or work. It’s about a family caught up in an iron, tension-stress filled issue of illness and emotional crisis that’s just plain ongoing. The solution is very American: medicate the patient and embrace denial like a fiend, and if that doesn’t work, there’s always electric shock therapy.
In the end, of course, this isn’t social criticism or even a heavy dose of profundity with music: It’s a show about emotional pain and secrets, and the cost in wear and tear over time. It’s a tight night where you can’t get away from the anguish that everyone’s feeling, anguish we’ve all felt at some point in our lives over something. In “Next to Normal,” we really feel their pain.
The music and Ripley are the keys here—it’s not your normal Broadway score with recognizable songs and borders and cutoffs, not even next to normal, so integrated is the music into the life of the characters. While there’s recognizable “songs”—“Just Another Day” sets the sparse stage and set, “I’m Alive” is a defiant lament by the son, “Hey” is a touching, very now love song for the daughter and her new friend – the score keeps insinuating itself like another character.
Ripley has pretty much owned the part of Diana since she took it over on Broadway, and it appears to have taken a toll on her voice, which is now rich with rasp, as well as a capability to hit long and high notes, she now seems to sing the way people talk under stress. Asa Somers as her husband Dan, Preston Sadler as Henry, Curt Hansen as Gabe and Jeremy Kushner as two different shrinks are all emotionally affecting, but that’s especially true of Emma Huton as the daughter, who gets richer and better through the course of the show.
You won’t be dancing when you come out, or defying gravity. You might be a little shaky in the knees after a night with “Next to Normal.” But that’s a good thing. It’s practically next to normal.