A lot of people liked this show the night I was there, and as far as I can tell it's because Next to Normal falls into line right behind Spring Awakening and it's predecessor, Hair. There's a couple of hummable songs in here ("I Am The One” and “I’m Alive”), most of it is snappy, and the scuttlebutt in the ladies room was that this show was going to "Totally win for best music. Totally."
This is the story of a daughter disguised as the story of a mother. This, I suppose, is better than a poke in the eye, seeing as how there are few shows out there about mothers unless you count a handful of old plays that were written to depress you. Anyway. Speaking of depressed, this mother Diana (Alice Ripley) IS and has been so for 18 or so years ever since her 8 month old son died. She has been more than depressed. She has been manic.
Diana did bother to have another child, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) but she never did much with the kid once she got it born. She kept her distance and pretty much wallowed in grief from one day to the next, varying her acting out escapades. We meet her on a day when her spark plugs are not all firing. Diana is literally making sandwiches on the floor with her husband, her daughter and the dead son looking on. Her husband Dan (Robert Spencer) suggests they pay a little visit to the doctor. The pharmacist-I-mean-doctor prescribes a series of drugs over the next few weeks that leave her without feeling in her hands and feet, nauseous, detached, and not herself – in other words, stable. Except she's not and she knows it. So. Off the pills she goes, and that's great for a few weeks. Then it's not. The new doctor recommends electro shock therapy, which he says is safer than crossing the street. That takes away her personality which makes her less depressed but not a lot of fun to be around because she is not who she was. Through all of this the 18-year-old ghost of her dead son is lurking, serenading her with songs that are more romantic than familial. She is the only one who can see and hear him. And no one will say his name.
But it is the story of the daughter, Natalie, who is one fuck-up away from disaster because she has been on the receiving end of her mother's illness that is the lynchpin to this production. We watch her melt down from fear and the abuse that a dysfunctional parent spreads around. When her parents don’t show for her piano recital, because mom is having another episode, Natalie spirals out of control. Her new boyfriend is brave enough to stick his hand into her cage and provide her with regular old support and love which is not quite enough. Natalie is caught between turning into her mother – she tries popping pills but that doesn’t work – and believing that something close to a normal life is possible. Natalia has been playing second fiddle to a ghost and she wants that to stop. Her life is running parallel to her mother's but it is from hormones and humiliation that she gets her juice. We see her story active in the present while we watch her mother reacting to the past.
As I said – a LOT of people liked this show. It is 99.44% music. You can understand the words. It has rhythm and angst and unexpected harmonies.
What is doesn't have is a story that I can believe. Would someone who is married to a woman who runs naked through the street from time to time, throws shit down the stairs, hides out in the car and slits her wrists in the bathtub STAY in the marriage? Maybe so. I suppose it’s happened. Everything else has. Even so, if the mother really has been out there for 18 years, a quick duet with her daughter is not going to solve the problem, as it seems to here.
While the attack on the medical profession was thrilling to witness, a lot got glossed over in the process. The lines between depression, hallucination and medication got blurred. Diana and her family bounce between treatments as though they were trying different weight loss plans. They take no action, they only react. And when Diana finally takes a step to a new life, she leaves her dead son to her living husband as a sort of bequest. She wants to be alive again and leaves the albatross next to her husband’s favorite chair. It’s an odd twist.
This is why I stick with the daughter. Hers is a story in which I can not only believe but also choose sides. I want that kid to fight her way out. She is the one who wants a life that is "next to normal". Normal is way too much for her to ask for, and given the life she has in this production you can see why.
I say a little more normal wouldn’t have hurt.
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "A work of muscular grace and power."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "More than a triumph - it's next to wondrous."
ELISABETH VINCENTELLI for NEW YORK POST says, "Close to good may not be enough for theatergoers."
JEREMY GERARD for BLOOMBERG says, "Easier to admire than love."
ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "It has the heart and humanity that make musicals meaningful."
ERIK HAAGENSEN for BAC STAGE says says, "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."
ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "Powerful, riveting and not to be missed."
ROMA TORRE for NY1 says, "Touches your heart and gets under your skin."
DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "Freshness, urgency and emotional integrity."