Next to Normal

Booth Theatre, NYC - November 2010

Review by John Kenrick

Sometimes, the rarest theatrical treasures sparkle all the brighter just before exiting.  Such is the case with Next to Normal, which is glowing with breathtaking brilliance as it ends its Broadway run. Most of the contemporary rock musicals that made their way to Broadway in the past decade have been long on volume and short on emotional variety -- lots of noisome rage, yes, but not much else. So it is a rare joy, if not a downright revelation, to once more encounter a moving musical that not only imbues rock with rich melody and polished lyrics, but one that also offers three dimensional characters in a powerful original story. Next to Normal is truly historic; Broadway's first masterfully integrated rock musical.

To be sure, there have been other great rock musicals, but in this critic's opinion, none before Next to Normal (and none since) managed to utilize rock so effectively as a story telling tool, making it a contributor rather than a hindrance to the dramatic process. This is in part accomplished by the wide-ranging melodic gifts of composer Tom Kitt, groundbreaking orchestrations by Kitt and Broadway veteran Michael Starobin, exquisite vocal arrangements by Annmarie Milazzo, and the extraordinary lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey. Special praise is due to sound designer Brian Ronan, who achieves an amazingly clear balance between orchestra and singers that no other rock musical has yet matched. Also, under conductor Charlie Alterman, the six piece string & rock combo provides perfect support. It is unique to hear every lyric clearly in a rock score, and these musicians deserve special credit for making this happen. And although I have often found director Michael Grief's work to be disappointing in the past, here his stagecraft makes the sometimes challenging flow of action (which switches between the conscious and subconscious, sane thought and perhaps something else) crystal clear, and even the subtlest dramatic moments come through with unfailing emotional impact.

The plot involves an all-American suburban family torn apart as its loving mother battles with mental illness. No longer willing to rely on crippling psychotropic medications, she pursues a new course of therapy that leads from consultation to hypnotism to harrowing electro-shock -- and to the stark realization that old fears and secrets must be set aside before she and her loved ones can hope for freedom. By the final curtain, all the characters are not so much at an end as at a far from certain beginning, one that poses major new challenges and possibilities for each of them.

As this landmark production comes to the end of its Broadway run, its final cast is among the strongest this longtime theatergoer has ever seen. As the troubled Diana, Marin Mazzie affirms her status as one of the  finest singing actresses of our time, giving a performance that crackles with humor, fire and soul-shaking honesty. How appropriate that the role of Diana's husband Dan should be played now by Mazzie's real-life husband Jason Danieley, who happens to be one of Broadway's finest singing actors. Danieley is brilliantly understated throughout the early parts of the show, making the build-up to the play's final revelation (which I will not unveil here) all the more harrowing. For musical theatre fans, the first-ever joint Broadway appearance by this gifted couple is something akin to the thrill of seeing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton costar in the classic screen version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the results are just as glorious, just as searing.

Kyle Dean Massey portrays Gabe with steamy rock star looks, a powerhouse voice and chilling believability, Meghann Fahy makes the unhappy daughter Natalie amazingly sympathetic, Adam Chandler-Barat is charming as a classmate who loves Natalie, and Louis Hobson brings real humanity to the two easy-to-hate physicians in Diana's life.  After more than a year and a half on Broadway, Mark Wendland's innovative set, Jeff Mashie's deceptively simple and highly effective costumes, and the handsome lighting by Kevin Adams all look first-night fresh.

It was one of the most disappointing moments in recent theatrical history when the flashy hit Billy Elliot copped the Tony for Best Musical on the same night that the award for best score went so deservedly to Next to Normal. How any musical can be "best" when the finest score belongs to another escapes me altogether. Some sweet justice came when the less commercial but still coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to this show, which is arguably the most artistically significant new musical in many a year.

From now on, there will be two kinds of musical theatre fans -- those who saw and loved Next to Normal, and those who did not. Those who have will know what the 21st Century musical is capable of; those who did not will still be willing to ignorantly accept electronically amplified crap in place of real musical drama, inept pseudo-rock concert posturing in place of genuine stagecraft, and mere volume in place of real emotion.

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