Next To Normal – Review

19 Aug

This is not a complete review of Next to Normal, but rather a review of Act I.  That’s right dear reader, this reviewer walked out.  While it pains me to be a quitter, it pains me more to subject myself to misery.  This is a life philosophy that I embrace.  I know how terribly unpopular this negative opinion of the show is.  I am not a stranger to this phenomenon.  I saw (and hated) Rabbit Hole!
Next to Normal is a rock opera centered on a family, focusing specifically on the mother who has been diagnosed (for 16 years) with bipolar disorder and delusions.  What little dialogue there is, is made up for in copious cliches and cheap sentiment.  It is a loud, seriously over-miked, “high school musical” “very special Growing Pains” confection.  I was prepared to love this show, billed as cutting edge and compared to _Spring Awakening_.  Given that every show that is not produced by Disney seems to be compared to Spring Awakening these days, you’d think I would have been prepared.
The amplification is such, in the diminutive Booth Theatre, that I felt as if I was listening to the soundtrack and the cast was lip synching.  The score is not awful (even screamed at a constant intensity) but the songs are indistinguishable.  Every tune sounds exactly the same. The storyline (at least of Act I) is utterly unconvincing.  The family is at a crisis.  Why?  The mother (Alice Ripley) has been ill for 16 years!  Why is the teenage daughter only now falling apart?  Why would the girl fall apart at a recital because her mother didn’t show up?  Her mother has never shown up.  Why would the over-achieving Yale-bound girl suddenly start taking her mother’s medication?  To create drama no doubt.  It rang as false as the girl singing about her family not being normal.  A senior in high school, especially one with a mentally unbalanced mother and a dead sibling (oh, didn’t I mention that after school special conceit?) would most certainly be spending as much time out of her house as possible and certainly not sing treacly lyrics about her quirky family.
The characters are one dimensional and utterly unconvincing.  It speaks volumes that the only fully formed character is the figment of mommy’s imagination.  Alice Ripley (mommy) surprised me.  She is a seasoned performer, and I did not expect such an awkward and cartoonish performance.  Her physical performance was primitive, she actually resembled a primate at times.   I realize there wasn’t much physicality called for in her most famous role (Side Show) as a conjoined twin, but we should believe that she can walk across a stage upright. The costuming added to the cheapness of this production.  Characters were dressed in nearly identical outfits at times to alert us to the synergies.  It wouldn’t have been such an overbearing device if it didn’t always occur while the scene was also spelling out the synergies.  The piano-synching that director Michael Greif indulges in is grating.  Jennifer Damiano (daughter) has obviously never been near a piano, but plays a serious player.  Instead of helping her by hiding the keyboard from the audience, he exposes her awkward and clumsy fingers. What irritated me most was the sense I had of the creative team’s arrogance.  Did they genuinely think that mental illness, dead children and substance abuse were such novel theatrical fodder?  It’s as if they thought they could get away with just simply delivering the topic without artistic integrity.  It was disrespectful to the audience.

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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


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