Mental illness shatters family in Broadway musical 'Next to Normal'
NEW YORK — There are no easy answers to be found in "Next to Normal," a startling, emotion-drenched musical about one family's attempt to cope with mental illness. The show is an impressive achievement, a heartfelt entertainment that has found its way back to New York after an invaluable out-of-town retooling.
It's startling because the production, which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Booth Theatre, tackles the uncomfortable subject of manic depression with a straightforwardness that is commendable.
And it's emotional, too, in that Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Tom Kitt, who composed the music, have crafted an affecting contemporary tale that doesn't shortchange character or plot in their attempt to tell a difficult story.
"Next to Normal" traces the anguished, downward spiral of a bipolar wife and mother, played by Alice Ripley. The actress is giving one of those fearless performances that is astonishing in its theatrical intensity and vocal commitment. Watching her unravel is a harrowing experience, as are the woman's attempts to combat her problems with pills, shrinks and electroshock therapy.
As she flounders, her family suffers, too. There is her husband (superbly played by J. Robert Spencer), a pent-up helpmate who is dutiful in his devotion and devoid of passion as he bottles up his own feelings.
And an overachieving daughter with anxieties of her own, problems that mirror her mother's own troubles. Jennifer Damiano plays her with a sweet insecurity, combative with her parents and resisting the affections of her stoner boyfriend, portrayed with ingratiating loyalty by Adam Chanler-Berat.
Monitoring this family destructiveness is her mysterious brother - a charismatic Aaron Tveit - and an eerily supportive doctor played by Louis Hobson.
What these performers all have in common are powerhouse voices, able to negotiate a pulsating pop-rock score. Actually, pop-rock doesn't do justice to Kitt's often haunting melodies and Yorkey's intelligent lyrics. Both are infused with a theatricality that helps define who these people are.
Under Michael Greif's sharp direction and the kinetic musical staging of Sergio Trujillo, the actors move with ease - and sometimes gymnastically - around designer Mark Wendland's multitiered set. It quickly transforms itself from suburban home to doctor's office and serves as the nesting area for the musical's small band.
The stage has been blindingly lighted by Kevin Adams, whose array of powerful, coloured lights give off an unnerving sense of dislocation that suggests the fragile state of the lead character's mind.
"Next to Normal" was seen early last year at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre with much the same cast. An engagement in late 2008 at Washington's Arena Stage allowed the authors to clarify what had been a more diffuse, less focused musical.
That newfound clarity has ratcheted up the show's effectiveness, making "Next to Normal" one of the most adventurous and satisfying musicals of the season.