Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: NEXT TO NORMAL—Manic Ride with a Down Side

By John A. McMullen II
Monday January 31, 2011 - 09:04:00 PM
Alice Ripley and Jeremy Kushnier
Craig Schwartz
Alice Ripley and Jeremy Kushnier

The days of Cockney flower girls and Indiana librarians as our heroines are long past. Admittedly,NEXT TO NORMAL pushes limits: it’s a contemporary story could have been written by Ibsen. It takes us behind the façade of normal into domestic despair. 

Diana, our heroine in NEXT TO NORMAL is having a little trouble with reality. Unable to cope, medicated, trying to be a mom and wife but failing miserably, she is still exciting to be around and exhausting to live with. She is too bold and quick-witted for her good-guy husband. One of her best lines in the show is, “Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it enough.” Diana tells her shrink, “Most people who think they’re happy are actually just stupid.” 

Since Diana doesn’t function well in the outside world, she is trapped in a failed attempt at 1950’s housewifery which made a lot of women crazy back then. Crazy-in-the-family affects everyone, and the book by Brian Yorkey lays out how each character’s world is turned upside down. It is a roller-coaster, tear-inducing ride that lets you walk in the shoes of each character.  

Alice Ripley (born in San Leandro!) won the Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award for her performance. Ms. Ripley is the image of a trophy wife with her ice blue eyes and silky blonde hair. Her strangely hollow and steely singing tones are perfect for the role.  

Along about the time that Sondheim started to write by himself and reintroduced the operetta format where almost everything is sung, musicals changed. Used to be that musical plays were just that—a play where every once in a while they stopped, the music started, they sang, and then they went back to being in a play. That interruption sort of strained one’s disbelief. Now the dialogue is mostly sung. 

In NEXT TO NORMAL, the sung dialogue, sometimes with four-part harmony, moves the plot and character development along, sometimes at a presto pace. As in many rock operas, some words are lost, but generally most come through. The music ranges from rock to country to typical musical theatre lyric ballads with the LOL lines and rhymes reminiscent of the wit of Sondheim and Porter.  

Often the upbeat music runs counter to the seriousness of the lyrics--which works well. This mode is also a metaphor for dad trying to be happy in the face of waiting for mom’s next disastrous outburst or acting-out.  

The first act is manic and happy with a foreboding undertone. When mysteries are revealed, the second act becomes more dire and dramatic. As the stakes are raised, this change of tone sometimes becomes overindulgent in the duration of some songs. 

Regrettably, Act Two goes on a little too long. This domestic tragedy has a dark and side-lighted natural end-point. But it doesn't stop there. The play has to bring us hope with a little bit of “everything’s all right.” Back in the day, Ibsen’s “The Doll’s House” had to be softened for an audience who railed against Nora’s abandonment of her family; we too, in this uncertain and scary era, are in no mood for the tragic and want to walk out with a song in our heart. 

Directed by Michael Greif of “Rent” fame, the casting nears perfection: Dan, the committed husband (Asa Somers) has a sweet tenor that fits his character and is the opposite of acerbic Diana. Geeky-smart daughter (Emma Hunton) has her dad’s soft-looks, and his big bones which makes having a mom who could be a model doubly difficult for her self-image. Her voice is a treasure with substantial range and power and a full array of emotions. 

Curt Hansen as their son, has demonic energy and a head-turning physique. All the men, including the daughter’s supportive boyfriend (Preston Sadleir), have the ability to sustain the rock-opera high notes made popular in the 70’s by “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tommy.” 

The psychiatrist (Jeremy Kushnier) reassures Diana and Dan in the tones of any TV ad for “Abilify” anti-depressives. His encouragement and optimism to try the next therapeutic measure are couched in words that avoid lawsuits and reveal the well-intentioned but still clumsy experimentation of “Cuckoo’s Nest” with techniques ranging from psychopharmacology to ECT (which is a new and friendlier way of referring to electro-shock therapy). 

The set consists of scaffolding and platforms with living quarters on the deck, bedroom on the second level, and the ominous attic atop. It is a perfect modular set for a road show and enables quick set changes. The levels allow stage pictures to change quickly as family members run up and down the stairs to avoid one another or exit raving. Actors hang precariously over the edge of the platform--which is full of metaphor, too. With sliding panes of white clapboard siding and blue shutters, the set is reminiscent of that white picket fence in the film Blue Velvet” behind which lurked demons. 

The changing back lighting of the entire stage in blues, reds, pinks, and ghastly green draws from the rock opera genre and big glitzy musicals and changes our mood in a flash. The excellent, flexible house band is nestled on the far-reaches of the various levels. 

On the way out, I heard a fellow audience member comment, “That was exhausting.” I agreed, and a quote from an insightful reviewer came to mind, “We don’t go to theatre to feel good. We go to theatre to feel.” And that you will. 

NEXT TO NORMAL was chosen as “one of the year’s ten best” by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Time Out New York, and New York Daily News. 

At the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, between Mason and Taylor (next to ACT)
Playing Tue-Sun through February 20th or (888) 746-1799 

Music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, musical staging by Sergio Trujillo, direction by Michael Greif, set design by Mark Wendland, costume design by Jeff Mahshie, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Brian Ronan. musical direction by Bryan Perri, orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt, and vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo. 

WITH: Alice Ripley (Diana), Asa Somers (Dan), Curt Hansen (Gabe), Emma Hunton (Natalie), Jeremy Kushnier (Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine) and Preston Sadleir (Henry). 

John A. McMullen II will be in NYC next week at the American Theatre Critics Conference, and will return with some Broadway and Off-Broadway reviews for those of you who must travel into that deep-freeze. EJ Dunne edits.