Sunday, February 24, 2008

Musical Dysfunction

Next to Normal
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
Starring Alice Ripley, Brian d’Arcy James, Adam Chanler-Berat, Jennifer Damiano, Asa Somers and Aaron Tveit

Performances from January 16 through March 16, 2008

Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street

James and Ripley in Next to Normal (photo: Joan Marcus)
Damiano and Chanler-Berat in Next to Normal (photo: Joan Marcus)
Next to Normal is certainly daring for a musical, since it features a heroine suffering from manic depression. And wait until you meet her family! Rarely are such deeply dysfunctional characters turned into musical protagonists; the most famous is probably The Who’s Tommy, of which Next to Normal is a distant cousin.

Diana (a heartbreakingly good Alice Ripley) has bipolar disorder, which makes things quite harrowing for her well-meaning husband Dan (Brian d’Arcy James), 18-year-old son Gabe (Aaron Tveit), and smart but rebellious teenage daughter Natalie (a star-making performance by 16-year-old Jennifer Damiano). The family finds it increasingly difficult to deal with mom's mood swings, which are further affected by the sundry pills she’s taking.

For a musical that’s basically a “disease of the week” TV movie presented live on stage, Next to Normal often deals complexly with Diana and her family. Brian Yorkey’s book deftly handles an early plot twist which no one sees coming and that ends up coloring the entire show, especially our heroine’s behavior. Yorkey has also written persuasive scenes of teen confusion for Natalie and her would-be boyfriend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat) that eclipse parallel scenes between the adults, including Diana and her ineffectual doctors (both played with brio by Asa Somers).

Too bad Yorkey’s book far outpaces his lyrics which, though mostly serviceable, too often touch bottom. There are several lame couplets, like this one in Diana’s song, expressing her apprehension about electroshock therapy: “I’m not a psychopath / I’m not Sylvia Plath.” Tom Kitt’s music follows suit, consisting largely of headache-inducing rock tunes that pummel us without enlightening us either musically or dramatically, similar to his score for the Broadway bomb High Fidelity.

Several set pieces work wonderfully, like Diana’s poppy paean to Costco (“...where all the lost go”), replete with super-size supermarket items and dancing stock boys. Hard-hitting rhythms accompany Diana’s electroshock therapy, even if the blinding lights and power chords are a too obvious analogue between brain damage and arena rock. Yet too much of the musical is a succession of scenes that never cohere.

Michael Greif directs capably on Mark Wendland’s unnecessarily busy set, which looks like a multi-tiered erector set with staircases for the cast members to run up and down. (The fine musicians are scattered in the upper corners.) But even Greif comes to grief with the treacly finale, “Let There Be Light,” which tries to become the “Let the Sunshine In” for a new, heavily medicated generation--but more closely resembles the anti-climax of an “American Idol” reunion concert.

If Next to Normal doesn’t succeed in its bid to become a rock musical that tackles adult themes and characters with tact and insight, that’s not Alice Ripley’s fault. As Diana, this underused but always mesmerizing actress-singer makes this show a must-see, if not always a must-hear.

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