THEATER REVIEW: Next To Normal
An original story for the modernly medicated, Next To Normal rocks and rolls with questions on finding happiness amidst tragedy and chaos. Many Americans feel they ride the mysterious line between traumatic strain and mental instability, and like a musical therapist, Next To Normal raises more questions than it answers.
The opening reveals a family of four quasi-existing under one roof: Dan and Diana Goodman (J. Robert Spencer and Alice Ripley) and their two teenage children (Jennifer Damiano and Aaron Tveit). The layers of the typical America nuclear family are peeled back during the opening number as each family member vents his or her own uncertainties and insecurities. Unsatisfied with her life and her family, Diana has become increasingly mentally unhinged over a long stretch of years, stemming from her unusual relationship with her son.
The story proceeds to interweave perceptions of family with America’s contemporary perceptions of medicine. The modern ethics of drug use, both illegal and prescribed, are hotly and intelligently debated between characters. However, the benevolent Dr. Madden (Louis Hobson) is never dismissive of his patient as he methodically seeks to cure Diana through whatever treatment seems best.
Alice Ripley is mesmerizing. As Diana, she captures the haziness of stumbling through psychosis and medication. Yet when pushed to her emotional limits, her voice resonates with astonishing passion and force, blindsiding every character and every audience member with raw intensity. In other moments, such as the James Taylor inspired “I Miss The Mountains,” Ripley sings with disarming clarity and honesty.
As a grounded husband trying to hold on to their marriage, J. Robert Spencer finds all the right notes in a man unwittingly forced to anchor his floundering family. Jennifer Damiano pops as the resentful over-achieving daughter Natalie. Her romance with jazz musician/stoner/nice guy Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat) often reflects the rocky marriage of Dan and Diana. The chemistry between Damiano and Chanler-Berat is both fun and heartfelt.
As an idealistic teenage boy, Aaron Tveit is utterly electrifying, whipping up and down the tiered set with spectral grace and seemingly boundless energy. In the night’s most exciting song, “I’m Alive,” Tveit’s voice builds excitement like a rollercoaster ride through a rock song.
The solid rock orchestra supports the characters upon a blurry, surreal that’s not quite tangible. Tom Kitt’s music floats and falls like a pendulum of emotion, yet drives and thumps with necessary purpose. The book by Brian Yorkey wisely administers humor and grace to a heavy subject matter. As Diana attempts to reform the pieces of her crumbled existence, you’ll ask yourself how much of your life has simply been a dream-walk.