If someone would have told me a year or two ago that I’d be almost rabidly fond of a musical with the premise of how a normal family deals with their mother battling a bi-polar disorder, I would have said that they were the one with the mental problem… but here I am, without a moment’s hesitation, sending everyone I know to see Next to Normal.
This musical was abruptly shoved in my face during the 2009 Tony Awards. It was up for eleven nominations, and ended up winning three, for best score, best orchestration and best actress in a musical for Alice Ripley. The showcase numbers “You Don’t Know” and “I Am the One” performed by Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer and Aaron Tveit just galvanized me. I had never heard anything like it, rock musical… psychoanalysis… whatever it was, it sure wasn’t my garden variety musical comedy in any case. Take a listen.

After the Tonys were over, I went right onto Next to Normal’s website to hear more. Sixteen dollars or so and about two days later, I had the CD in my possession (yes, I know if I entered the twenty-first century and downloaded it, I would have had instant gratification…but that would have required me to buy an ipod or some other new-fangled gad-jet that I can’t wrap my brain or my bankbook around, yet) and was blasting the heck out of it in my car. Loved it. Now I had to go see it.

Drove me CRAZY that it had had it’s pre-Broadway run at Arena Stage in the 2008-2009 season, same cast, same numbers, same book, and only a half hour away, rather than the four and a half hour trip to New York it was now going to take me to satisfy my itch. Darn, Drat… Note to Self: Stop paying so much attention to the show you are working on and occasionally see what the other theaters are doing! It would certainly have been a lot cheaper.

By the time I had time off and a bit of spare cash, it was the late spring of 2010 and I was sadly aware that two of those three cast members you just listened to had left the show. Losing the chance to hear Aaron Tveit live just killed me, and I may be the first person in the line for the previews of Catch Me If You Can, reportedly his next venture, when it hits the boards early next year. Aaron, the object of my theatrical obsession, plays the son, Gabe, and is pictured to the right at the Tonys with Stockard Channing from Pal Joey. He may have to be the subject of his own A.W. post in the future. But even without him, I knew it would be worth the trip just to see Alice and Jennifer Damiano, playing her daughter.

Of course, the next problem is getting tickets on short notice, especially when my main free day is a Monday, but luckily for me, the tight economic times have pushed more of the Broadway shows to offer Monday performances (Monday is traditional Actor’s Equity day off). So, there I was in Times Square on a late spring Monday trying to get half price tickets to see a show at the TKTS booth there, and my luck seems to be changing, because Next to Normal is one of the shows playing that day. After standing in line for only a half hour conversing with lesser known actors who work the lines flacking specific shows, quite entertaining, I think, I have my ticket in hand. Half price, but with fees, still over $60…I’m old…I still think that is very expensive. Yet it was more than worth it.

I was off to the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. I milled around on the sidewalk outside the theater, brimming with excitement until… I found out that not only wasn’t I going to see Aaron Tveit and J. Robert Spencer (I was prepared for that. Kyle Dean Massey and Brian D’Arcy James had ably stepped in to those roles) but now I find two of those ominous slips of paper in my program that stated that now Brian and Alice, sob, have their understudies in! Mondays still have their drawbacks, it seems. As I moved toward my seat, I considered asking an usher about it, but was deterred by said usher almost snarling at me when I tried to read my ticket and seat myself. Perhaps he wanted an understudy for Mondays, as well. Tough it out, buddy, it’s a job.

And so, I sat in my very good seat, mid orchestra, hoping that even with all the substitutions [Michael Berry in for Bryan as the father, Dan, and Jessica Phillips in for Alice as Diana] that the production alone would still transport me. And so it did. Everyone did a wonderful job; even what would be considered the supporting roles of the doctor and the boyfriend (played by Louis Hobson and Adam Chanler-Berat, respectively) are critical lynchpins of the structure of this piece and both give gifted and focused performances.

And it is a real commitment doing this show each night, let me tell you. From the minute the show opens on Mark Wendland’s two-dimensional playhouse of a set, sketched in plexiglas and light, the cast flings itself, almost literally, into it’s opening number and doesn’t stop for breath until the intermission. The music by Tom Kitt, is alternately driven with passion and angst, then tender with love and sadness. He has paced it just right so you never feel it is too much or lose interest in the quiet moments. It’s a masterpiece of modern popular music.

There is very little dialogue, almost everything is sung, as in opera, but each word of the book and lyrics, penned by Brian Yorkey, each sung phrase is really honed to get right to the heart of the emotion they want to display. And Next to Normal really runs the gamut. Diana, the mother, is bi-polar, but has been under medication for several years and her family thinks she has reached a happy level, but we find she is far from happy. She misses the variations in life that disappear when the medication renders all of the emotional geography in her life calm and flat…so she decides to stop the doses. And hilarity ensues.

Well, I’m kidding and not kidding. This play has some outright hysterically funny moments. Jessica, particularly is very witty in her delivery and her sense of the ridiculous, yet, at the same time, we are never less than aware of the pain that all members of this family are feeling. They all give affecting performances, and the show deserves it’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama and all it’s good press. And I want to go on record as saying that I don’t think that anyone could do a better job standing in for a Tony winner than Jessica Phillips. She even adds an element of tightly restrained sexuality that I haven’t seen in the clips of Alice’s performances, that made me feel that I was seeing what must have attracted Dan to Diana in the first place, and wonder if he could have held her so long in that sweet normal home without the medication.

Next to Normal is a rollercoaster of a musical that has you gasping for breath, elated and tearful, almost in the same breath. I loved every moment of my experience of it. I’d pay to go see it again, and urge all of you who have the chance to go seek it out. Actually, it may come to you. The show website has the full schedule of a national tour that is going out next year, and Alice Ripley is leaving the Broadway cast to take it out on the road. It’s coming to Washington, to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre for two weeks or so this time next year. So go, enjoy, with whatever permutation of the cast you’re lucky enough to catch!

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