Next to Normal is Better than Awesome

by Melissa G.

Melissa makes us wish we were in New York in her review of the musical Next To Normal.
Oooh! This is in the Axis of Awesome!
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So I have to admit that I have been somewhat underwhelmed by most of the shows that have come to Broadway in recent years. Every time another movie or band or music genre was given its own show on the Great White Way, the part of me that graduated a theater major died inside. Legally Blond the Musical was my breaking point, and I lost my faith in Broadway shows. Which is why I haven’t gone to see a show on Broadway in quite some time.

But yesterday, my friend’s mother sent us out on a mission to go see a Broadway show – you know, for culture – and being somewhat cheap, we went to TKTS in Times Square to find ourselves some tickets. There wasn’t much to offer sadly, but we decided on a musical called Next to Normal which my brother had heard was good. They had really good seats available for it – first row center mezzanine – and they were cheaper tickets than our second choice so off we went.

We knew going in that this musical would probably depress us. My brother said it was a contemporary musical about a dysfunctional family, and something about electro-shock therapy. So this wasn’t necessarily going to be a fun time romp at the theater. While it did make both of us cry in public – and a lot of others in the theater by the look of it – it also had a dark comedy and humor to it that kept it from being overly maudlin. And there was a note of hope at the end so you don’t leave the theater wallowing in sorrow and suicidal thoughts.

It’s hard to talk about the show without giving away its best twist, which comes somewhat early – about 8 songs or 15 minutes in. I should mention that this is the kind of musical where the characters are singing more than they’re talking, and some of the musical moments are so phenomenal, I felt myself reacting physically by smiling or sitting up in my seat. So let me see if I can give a non-spoiler synopsis. The play centers around Diana (the mother), Dan (the father), Natalie (the daughter), Gabe (the son), Henry (Natalie’s boyfriend), and the two doctors that treat Diana. All of the family members have their own problems: Diana is bi-polar and delusional, Dan is trying to hold his family together despite all odds, Natalie is stressed and feels invisible in the shadow of her brother, and Gabe is a problem just by being around. You really feel for all the characters equally; there is no bad guy or good guy. Even the doctor(s) are obviously just trying to do all they can to help their patient and using the resources available to them.

The plot basically revolves around Diana and her attempts to recover/cure her illness. Our first hint that something is a bit off with her comes at the end of the first song when she begins making sandwiches on the floor. This follows with a visit to the doctor and a song about pills that was really rather fantastic. It humorously investigates the shortcomings of psychopharmacology, but you are still aware of how serious this woman’s issues are.

The romance between Natalie and Henry is genuinely heartwarming and heartbreaking, and even though a skeptic of high school romances lasting, like myself, might not believe they’ll be together forever, it’s still touching to see their relationship struggle and repair itself through the show.

It’s hard to explain the really touching, fabulous moments of the show without giving things away, but let’s just say that Diana’s delusion is given a physical form so that it can interact with her on stage and, at times, influence other characters. It’s really well done. There are songs where her husband or the doctor is trying to reason with her, and she is caught between the delusion and the reality, trying to decide who she wants to be with. There’s a line the delusion sings where he says, “Until you name me, you can’t tame me.” And when Diana leaves, her husband is left alone with the delusion who then starts to speak to him, and after resisting, Dan names the delusion, and it seems like maybe the curse over the house may truly be broken.

The staging was also really interesting. The stage was built with three levels each representing a level of their house. At the end, they have a powerful final image of the cast members forming a sort of pyramid on the stage with Gabe alone on the roof, Diana and the doctor on the second level, and Natalie, Dan, and Henry on the ground level all singing the final song. The band was also on stage and was split into four sections tucked away in the corners of the second and third tier. They also used images of Diana’s eyes as a set piece and those were worked very interestingly into the set. There was a moment when the eyes were placed within the windows of the house.

I loved the show, and I highly recommend it. It’s playing in NYC right now so if you live in the area, GO SEE IT. If you can’t get to New York, look for it when/if it comes to your area. It was phenomenal. I want more shows like this on Broadway! It’s clever, touching, funny, and the music is great. It won two Tonys, and I am not at all surprised.
Themes: Theatre
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Comments (go to latest)
Jamie Johnston at 17:53 on 2009-10-09
... about 8 songs or 15 minutes in

Wow, those are some short songs! (Which is in itself an encouraging difference from a lot of current musicals.)

It's great to hear that there's at least one good original new musical happening. I'll look for it when it comes to London. Can you say anything about the style of the music itself?
Sister Magpie at 04:22 on 2009-10-10
At first the subject matter of this didn't interest me, but I keep hearing good things about it. I may have to check it out!
Melissa G. at 04:23 on 2009-10-10
The music style is very contemporary/rockish. There was a variety of instruments from classical piano to electric guitar.

I guess the songs are rather short, comparatively at least. Which, yeah, is kind of nice. It also uses a lot of reprisals, which seem well-planned out rather than lazy. ^^
Wardog at 11:38 on 2009-10-16
I am sad I am not in New York - I would love to see this. It sounds awesome.
Melissa G. at 17:30 on 2009-10-16
Hopefully it'll make it out to England and the West Coast eventually. I certainly hope so!
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