Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Remembering Loss

"Next to Normal" at Second Stage Theatre, January 20, 2008

"Next to Normal" is at first a tale of typical family dysfunction in the new millennium. Among the innocently named Goodmans, Gabe (Aaron Tveit) comes in very late to find his mother Diana (Alice Ripley) waiting up for him. Hearing his father Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) stirring, she quickly sends Gabe off to bed before his father enters the room. Gabe says, "Why does he hate me?" Gabe's sister Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) is on the straightest and narrowest path she can find to get out of high school and her parents' house and into Yale on a music scholarship. Her classmate Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat) has a crush and finally strikes up a conversation which leads to a relationship. Meanwhile, Diana has a melt-down at Costco and we learn she's been on medication for depression, et. al., for the last 16 years.

(Spoiler Alert)

With a generic rock score by Tom Kitt, (who is better partnered this go-round than his last effort High Fidelity) and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, "Next to Normal" takes us into the dark world of a family who can't escape the loss of their first child. It takes a while to reveal this, and even longer to learn how he died, but the effort is a worthy one. The songs do what songs are supposed to do for the most part, expand on character and/or further the plot. The result is reminiscent of William Finn's "Falsettos" with its heavily integrated score, but here there are no tunes to hum along as you leave the theatre, other than the music box tune "I Dreamed a Dance with You" (that starts off sounding remarkably like "Real Live Girl" from Little Me).

Mr. Tveit's Gabe (ostensibly, an angel) would be around 18 years old, though he comes off a bit less mature, probably resulting from the fact that he's primarily a deluded projection of his mother's mind. He gives a strong performance with a powerful voice, although his "I'm Alive" song drags out about 64 bars too long (not necessarily the actor's fault there).

As Diana, Ms. Ripley capably demonstrates the struggles of a woman swallowed by her own grief, but also seems to struggle a bit vocally with the musical style of some of her songs. She gets a few good lines here and there. In her first session with a new psychologist As she regains her memory following the electric shock therapy, it's very moving to see her experience the grief of losing her son all over again late in Act II.

Mr. d'Arcy James' Dan Goodman is just that, a good man. He only wants what is best for his wife and family and does everything he knows how to provide a stable and happy life for them. Credit to Mr. Yorkey for the really interesting twist at the end when Dan recognizes Gabe's presence and we learn he's starting his own counseling to deal with his own grief. It's particularly interesting because it's not clear whether Dan's step in that direction will be a healing one or not. Like Ms. Ripley, he had occasions vocal struggles here as well, perhaps the result of vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo's efforts. His plea to Diana to undergo the shock therapy "Light in the Dark" is touchingly effective.

Ms. Damiano had a more difficult time as the straight and narrow surviving child Natalie who takes a particularly late and sudden turn to pilfering her mother's drugs to insulate herself from the dysfunction around her. She's on the verge of graduating high school with good chances of a college scholarship to take her away. I just didn't understand why she would make such a choice with her goal so near, despite a bad showing at her piano recital because her mother didn't attend. Mr. Chanler-Berat's Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, sweet and tender, awkward and loving, wants to help but really can't grasp all that she's dealing with. It's too bad there wasn't more chemistry between them, despite his efforts.

Mr. Yorkey's book is basically solid, but the music box plot contrivance didn't work for me in the contemporary setting of the play. Musical sounds for infants at what would have been the time of Gabe's birth were more often built into toys and crib mobiles rather than an old-style music box.

Michael Greif has done pretty well with this new material though some of his supporting creative team hasn't made it so easy. Kevin Adams' lighting overpowers on occasion, masking Sergio Trujillo's musical staging (which hints at pole dancing from time to time). It's not a happy musical, but the catharsis is satisfying overall.

Mark Wendland's three-level black and white stage pulls from current Broadway shows, with industrial flavor from Klara Zieglerova (Jersey Boys, The Farnsworth Invention) as well as bone-like references of construction from Todd Rosenthal (August: Osage County) and James Noone (Come Back, Little Sheba). Jeff Mahshie's costumes use color effectively to tie both characters and mood together.

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