Friday, June 25, 2010

Next to Normal

David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Second Stage Theatre, Carole Rothman, and Ellen Richard present NEXT TO NORMAL at the Booth Theater, Broadway.

This is a six character musical. It is an intimate, dramatic, almost naturalistic psycho-drama. It was nominated in 2009 for eleven Tony Awards. It won three: Best Original Score. Best Orchestration. Best performance by a Leading Lady. This work won, controversially, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.

This is a musical about a woman, Diana (Alice Ripley), suffering from bipolar disorder, uncoiled from the death of her very young son and an inability to grieve properly, which leads to attempted suicide, drug abuse and a debate about the ethics of modern psychiatry. It examines this mother’s terrible plight and the effect it has on her family, husband Dan (Kyle Dean Massey), and daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano). Diana hallucinates a 16 year old son, Gabe (J. Robert Spencer), a very viable and persistent presence, and seeks aid from a psychiatrists, Dr Madden/Dr Fine (Louis Hobson). An outsider, a would–be boyfriend of Natalie’s – Henry ( Adam Chanler-Berat) – shows some signs of ‘light’ (rescue) for the family.

The subject matter and the territory covered in this musical is dramatic indeed. It is way off the usual path that the musical theatre presents at this level of production. The audience I saw it with were variously affected. Some in tears, some deeply moved. I felt strangely detached and a little shocked.

What bothered me for most of this performance was the scale of the production. This is a true Broadway Musical Production with a dazzling set by Mark Wendland, good costuming by Jeff Mahshie, whizz-bang lighting by Kevin Adams, wonderfully directed/staged by Michael Greif. The performances are wrenching and amazingly powerful. On the performance I saw Jennifer Damiano as the daughter out standing for her consistent committed dramatic truthfulness, closely followed by Alice Ripley as Diana – maybe, a little too automatic, only slightly, in contrast. The other cast members were terrific.

However, the biggest problem for me was the orchestration by Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt which was for a full rock orchestra. It was monumental in scale. The noise was tremendous and the scale of it was loud, louder and loudest. The sound design by Brian Ronan thumpingly penetrating and ear drum explosive. The climatic orchestration of the last number, LIGHT, stratospheric. What I really mean is “way over the top.” You were going to give a standing ovation one way or the other, the director and producers had decided, either because you were moved to honestly respond or you needed to get up and out of the theatre to escape the noise. Whether the song/music developed or followed a hallucinogenic moment, an attempted suicide, drug abuse, the tremors of electro-shock treatment, or the despair of the daughter, the despair of the husband, the bewilderment of the boyfriend, the taunting of the ill woman by her imaginary son that leads to her breakdown, the catastrophic traumas of the ill woman, her exhaustion, the husband’s dilemma, the daughter’s resolution, it ended with a rousing clamour to draw applause. It felt ‘kinda sick’ to be applauding such tragedy, the lyrics and the acting being so potent. But there we were, like Pavlov’s dog, taking the noise cue and putting our hands together when a considered contemplation, absorption of the power the moment – drawn by the writer, Brian Yorkey, would have been more appropriate. This musical calamitousness was created through some thirty-seven musical numbers!!! Thirty-seven, mostly, noisy orchestral ,“Broadway type” arrangements, cueing us to applaud!!! (Woof, woof).

I felt that the deeply affecting narrative and all the issues explored in this theatre piece would be better served with a more modest set of instruments and orchestration. A chamber orchestra perhaps? The cello, that is already employed, being the signature instrument, in a more musical clarifying manner. The musical production was an overkill of the material and was in my experience horribly overwrought and flying a flag, an emblem of: “Ain’t this brave?”; “ Isn’t this worthy ?”; “Hasn’t Broadway grown up?”; and “Such a serious issue, treated so bravely, as a musical?”

Bigger is not necessarily better. In my estimation this particular musical play might have more potential to affect an audience with a more modest production. Treating, respectfully, rather than commercially, a very serious contemporary experience. Not demanding sentimentality as a major response but true feelings and sentiment.

I read where this production earned back its expenses a year after the opening night on Broadway. If it were simpler the costs might have been recovered sooner and the material/subject matter more resounding.

The last musical to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. To compare the merits of each makes the comprehension of the controversy very easy to understand. This production certainly makes a Rock Musical Soap Opera out of the material in “next to normal”.


zane said...

dont really agree- i loved next to normal - it is incredibly moving, and i am not ashamed to say brave. there are flaws of course- but they are massively our weighed by the beauty of the peice.

i really enjoyed reading this review though and hearing your thoughts on it.


ps. slight correction, gabe is the son and dan is the dad

Pearl said...

Hi Kevin,

I just saw this production today. I saw it in the very back row and definitely moistened a few tissues with tears!

I disagree that the music was "way over the top". I think it was entirely refreshing, sat very well with my pop/rock appreciating ears and was entirely appropriate. However... I do think the sound mix was balanced to favour the instruments too much and some of the clarity of the lyrics and text was unfortunately lost. So I understand where you're coming from, but thought it had more to do with the mix than the choice of instruments or orchestration.

If you're in New York, I think it's definitely worth checking out. Bring tissues. Also worth checking out is FELA! Absolutely incredible! Best energy I've ever seen on stage.