I believe there is nothing more extraordinary or moving, than a great theater experience. I am not sure what to call Next to Normal, since in my mind, it is more a play than a musical, but it is done mostly through songs. Perhaps in another time, it would be billed as an operetta, but that doesn't really do it justice, either. It is a dramatic play, expressed in song, which comes across as natural as the spoken word. Wickepedia calls it "a Tony Award winning rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt". Rock musical doesn't sit right with me because though much of the music could be classified as rock and the play is done mostly in song, calling it a rock musical misses the point. Next to Normal is a play addressing dysfunction in a family caused or influenced by the mental disability of the mother (Diana) who suffers with manic depression, also known as Bipolar Disorder. In Diana's case, she has extreme manic episodes which lead to psychotic symptoms, delusions and hallucinations, about which I will not elaborate, to avoid a spoiler for anyone who might go to to see the play, which, if you haven't guessed by now, I highly recommend you do. I would call Next to Normal a play expressed in song and music. That may be a long way of saying a Rock Musical, but I'd prefer to find a new name for this kind of theater. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

If you click on the link above (i.e. the title), you will find a New York Times review of the play from February, 2008, when Next to Normal opened originally off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater with a slightly different cast. The current cast is highlighted by Alice Ripley, an actress previously unknown to me, but may be familiar to some from Broadway's production of The Who's Tommy in 1993. Alice Ripley is wondrous in this part. I can not speak her praises highly enough. Not only is her voice beautiful, expressive and displays a broad range, but her emotional range as an actor is what made this piece totally capture my imagination and my emotional world. The other actors, especially J. Robert Spencer, who plays Dan, the father, Jennifer Damiano, Natalie, the daughter and Kyle Dean Massey, Gabe the son are also wonderfully expressive, with beautiful and strong voices and in the case of Kyle Dean Massey, physically gorgeous. When I say expressive, I refer especially to their facial expressions. Because of my less than perfect vision, I am forced to watch the play as much through my opera glasses as directly, which not only allows me, but forces me to see the details of everything from their faces to the shoes they wear and the creases in their clothing. What captivated me was watching the subtle changes in Alice Ripley's facial expressions, which reveal, without words, a plethora of emotions including, but hardly limited to pain, fear, confusion, irony, distrust and love. The confusion and despair on her husband Dan, J. Robert Spencer's face also brings the audience to tears. Speaking of tears, the play is not a tear-jerker. What it is, is a display of life in it's multitude of emotions and how what happens to one family member can so broadly and profoundly affect all of the others. For those who do not like to cry, fear not, because there is a lot in this play that is funny and the characters laugh, as well as cry, as does the audience. Having said that, to watch this play without tears is either to not "get it" or to be the kind of person who does not allow themselves to experience the myriad of emotions available to the human species. From my perspective, that would be a shame. I read an interview that was done with the plays writer and lyricist, Brian Yorkey and he said the following: "We wanted this show to be an emotional experience, as honest as it could be, and we wanted people to experience emotions with Diana and her family -- to empathize, to share the experience, rather than just witness it." They succeeded.

Before watching the Tony Award Ceremony in June of this year, I was not aware of the play Next to Normal or Alice Ripley. A compelling scene from the play was performed on the Tonys and this is what initially sparked my interest. After hearing an interview of Alice Ripley on NPR, I knew that this was a play I had to see. By the way, Next to Normal was nominated for Best Musical (i.e. play expressed in music and song (:), Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score (Winner), Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical (Alice Ripley - Winner), Best Featured Actress, Best Director of a Musical, Best Orchestrations (Winner), Best Sound Design, Scenic Design and Lighting Design of a Musical. It appears I was not the only one who loved this play.

After the play, my sister and I walked over to TKTS and to our surprise found Next To Normal on it's board. I'd bought it for a discounted price online, so I didn't feel cheated. Truth be told, at any price, this play would be more than worth the price of admission.

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. Oscar Wilde


Anonymous said...

Interested play/musical but over the last 25 years I have experienced the performers upfront and personal. Working in Mental Health has opened up more doors then one can imagine…..it’s a play I would certainly enjoy and have it down as things to do. Thanks for your review.

Anonymous said...

I really love your play reviews. Living, as you do, so close to NYC, you have opportunities the rest of us can only dream of to see the best of Broadway.

The closest I've come is to sit in the nosebleed section of the Lubbock Auditorium watching "The Phantom of the Opera" done by a cast who couldn't even dream of hitting Broadway.

Keep up the wonderful writing you do!

Your biggest fan (Diane)

Sherril said...

I recognize Diane as the second commentor, but who is anonymous number one? I'm curious.