review: next to normal

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Next to Normal

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
Featuring Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley
Booth Theatre, 222 W 45th Street
production web site:
http://www.nexttonormal.com/home
Open April 15, 2009  – ongoing

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 28, 2010

The Booth Theatre — charming, warm, intimate.  Where I saw That Championship Season in 1973,and The Elephant Man in 1979, and so many other productions and events in the intervening years.  The Booth Theatre, holding down the 45th street edge of Shubert Alley.  And tonight, sitting before a three-storied, open metalwork (vision of the original Company set) scrimmed construction that promises to paint a world through gauze, I wait to be introduced to a family that has been revealing its secrets to audiences since early 2009.  And has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  I have somehow avoided getting to know this Pulitzer Prize winning musical in the past 18 months and I am here to say: it is a wonder.

Diana (Marin Mazzie) and Dan (Jason Danieley) are middle-aged parents of teen-aged Natalie (in this performance portrayed by the understudy Mackenzie Mauzy).  Natalie’s boyfriend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat) is adorable and adoring and teaches uptight classically trained Natalie about jazz and how to connect, as many teenaged love interests do, at least in theatre.  And to describe the final set of characters and the two actors who portray them will reveal certain plot points. Diana has some issues — is it manic depression or is it the need to resolve past pain or some combination of those issues or something else?   Spoiler alert: skip to next paragraph if you want to be as clueless about this musical’s plot as I somehow managed to keep myself before this evening.  A child Gabe turns out (in a Sixth Sense kind of way)  to have died in infancy and is present throughout the first Act and much of the second to Diana alone as the teenager he would be today.  Gabe (Kyle Dean Massey) is haunting Diana leading her back to her pain and into her future.  The final set of actors are doctors who treat Diana in and out of institutions, both played by Louis Hobson.

I am not a through-sung, rock musical type.  And that could be a superficial description of the style of this piece.  And yet —  this piece has tunes that sounds rock, some tunes that feel jazzy, delightful simply sung ballads, and complicated duets and trios and snippets of melody that call to mind Sondheim in form and sound.  Direction by Michael Greif and  musical staging by Sergio Trujillo choreograph movement in shadows and light within the streamlined set designed by Mark Wendland that rivets you in this world and this story.  Mental illness and suicide and death and electro shock therapy and, ultimately life.  Not bad for a night in the musical theatre.

My true test for any ballad upon first hearing: do I instantly wish that Judy Garland were alive to tackle the acting and singing in that particular tune?  In this show there are at least two such numbers.  The first comes at pivotal point in the first act, where mother and son sing of all that she had wished for him: “I Dreamed a Dance”.  And a second comes in the second act — recovering, post treatment Diana sings of potentially lost memories and struggling through the fog: “I Wish I Were Here”.  These impressions have been formed upon this singular first hearing, in the theatre.  I wonder what additions I might make after listening to the cast recording a few times?

And a final note about replacement casts.  Or better said: I know that the two leads, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley are replacements for the original leads in this piece.  And I know that this production has been showered with accolades in the past 18 months.  I am here to say that upon this first viewing of this production and with this particular cast (and an understudy for this performance), I was moved beyond measure.  Which may mean that those who have seen this fine piece of theatre in the past would be rewarded with a return visit to the Booth Theatre. I am still musing lines, and musical moments.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 29, 2010)

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