Next to Normal
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Next to Normal: Broadway review by Adam Feldman
As Diana in the surprising and moving Next to Normal, Alice Ripley has a voice like steel wool: It's tough and cloudy at once, and it scrubs to the core. There's something slightly off about Ripley's singing—the notes sometimes claw their way up from just under pitch—and this raggedness is perfectly attuned to the mental distress of her character, a psychotic suburban mother guiltily aware of the burden her illness brings to her family. There is nothing glamorous or camp about this unlikely musical-theater heroine, and Ripley is riveting.
It is not easy to pull off a musical about psychotropic drugs and electroconvulsive therapy—or for that matter, about duty, freedom and loss. In its trial mounting at Second Stage last year, Next to Normal sometimes suffered from acute self-consciousness and mood swings. Happily, authors Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt have successfully stabilized the show since then, and their songs make up the best new Broadway score of the season, merging show-tune influences (William Finn neurosis in "My Psychopharmacologist and I") with more radio-ready styles (John Denver wistfulness in "I Miss the Mountains," Seventies pop-rock thrust in the instantly memorable "I'm Alive"). Under Michael Greif's observant eye, the cast of six— which includes J. Robert Spencer as Diana's loyal husband, Jennifer Damiano as her ignored daughter and the charismatic Aaron Tveit as her idealized son—provides excellent support. After a year of hard work, Next to Normal has emerged as that rarest of Broadway species: a thoughtful, emotional musical for grown-ups.—Adam Feldman
Next to Normal: Broadway follow-up review by Adam Feldman
August 16, 2010
To the noble Marin Mazzie falls the unenviable task of replacing Alice Ripley in Next to Normal, and she rises to the challenge: The succession is a success. Ripley's star turn was one of those rare, perfect matches of actor and role; all of the idiosyncrasies that distinguish Ripley as a performer seemed to weave into her Diana, a suburban housewife suffering from an extreme version of bipolar disorder. To equal her would be next to impossible—Betty Buckley might have given her a run 15 years ago—and I was wary of seeing anyone else as Diana. But Mazzie comes through with confidence and surprising intensity. If this beast of a role seems a little tamer under her control, it still scratches out.
The other new actors in the cast—including Mazzie's real-life husband, Jason Danieley, as Diana's stoical spouse—perform credibly under Michael Grief's dynamic direction, but have yet to find all the levels that their predecessors brought to the show. (Adam Chanler-Berat and Louis Hobson are still strong in supporting roles.) If the audience's focus shifts somewhat more to the writing as a result, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt's work proves worthy of the attention. Perhaps Next to Normal's greatest accomplishment is in the way it integrates rock music—especially the kind that Diana might have listened to on 1970s radio—without the defensive self-consciousness typically associated with its deployment in musical theater. In its score and its subject matter, the show dares to step outside of the brackets, and after more than a year it remains shocking.