As the recipient of last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama — only the eighth musical to be so honored since that award was established in 1918 — the rock musical Next to Normal merits attention. Anyone who wants to keep up to speed with contemporary theater is duty-bound to see what the pundits have designated as exceptional work. And indeed, the Pulitzer judges were correct in declaring that this account of a family at peril because the mother suffers from bipolar disorder and depression "expands the scope of subject matter for musicals." But it would be unfair to evaluate this show's merits based on the performance I attended at the Fox Theatre last Wednesday evening, for this was not the same Next to Normal the Pulitzer judges saw.
Next to Normal is a musical about pain. It's not enough merely to hear the pain in the actors' voices. If the show's full impact is to register, viewers must see that pain on their faces. In New York, Next to Normal was presented at the intimate Booth Theatre, an ideal venue for a show described by its director, Michael Greif, as being "like an independent film." But in its heyday, the Fox presented major studio films; independent movies get screened at cozier venues like the Plaza Frontenac.
Ironically this touring production does not feel dwarfed by the Fox stage — but the actors do. The show's strengths have become inverted. On Broadway the flashy lighting design served to supplement and enhance the actors' performances; it helped to give a small show size. Here that same lighting makes a small show seem even smaller.
Greif's direction often feels static; the actors mostly stand in place and sing. What we hear (and we hear it clearly; kudos to the sound design) is a mixed bag. Tom Kitt's songs range from plaintive ("I Miss the Mountains," "Song of Forgetting") to energetic ("It's Gonna Be Good," "I'm Alive"). They sometimes sound like Broadway standards — only louder. The evening's final anthem, "Light," is reminiscent of "Make Our Garden Grow," Leonard Bernstein's concluding song in Candide (1956) — and you can't get much more standard than that. Kitt also helped to orchestrate the songs. His subtle use of cello and violin serves to make the voices more prominent. But Brian Yorkey's lyrics are often obvious. When a viewer consistently can predict the rhymes before the actors sing them, simplicity is not a virtue. The show's structure is also problematic. Act One feels tight and cohesive; Act Two, which is approximately the same length as Act One, feels nearly twice as long.
At Wednesday's performance both leading roles — Diana and her long-enduring husband Dan — were enacted by standbys. Alice Ripley, who won the Tony Award as Best Actress for her portrayal of Diana, did not appear. In her absence the part was performed by Pearl Sun, whose singing voice was clear and strong. Yet as the evening progressed, Sun's characterization felt less and less organic. One sensed that she was directed to replicate Ripley's portrayal, and it didn't make for a comfortable fit. But then, I did not make an emotional connection with any of these six characters. It's as if part of the mission statement for rock musicals (Spring Awakening excepted) is to discourage emotional connection.
But the Pulitzer judges assure us that this is a distinguished American drama, and those judges are wise and honorable. I do not seek to disprove their judgment. I only wish I'd seen the Next to Normal they saw.
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