When my husband and I saw “Next to Normal” on Broadway in 2009, we both left the theater feeling emotionally exhausted. The end of the first act alone had me in tears. The masterfully layered tension that built through both acts lingered within me as we emerged into the sudden darkness of New York City on a summer evening. I felt stirred and heartbroken. And I also felt proud.
The pride came from knowing that I had just witnessed a groundbreaking piece of American theater, and I had seen a master at work in Alice Ripley as the show’s psychologically tormented lead. I held onto every pained expression. Every single moment of discomfort. When Ripley’s Diana tries to comfort her spurned teenage daughter Natalie, only able to say “I love you as much as I can,” I wince. Every time I hear it, I just freeze. The way Ripley’s voice breaks, the way she can’t fix the way she feels, the way she doesn’t understand she shouldn’t have to try to love her daughter. It’s heartbreaking. Alice Ripley moved me. Jennifer Damiano moved me. “Next to Normal” instantly became one of my favorite musicals because of Ripley’s performance. She pours every ounce of her energy into this role.
With that being said, with all of my appreciation for Ms. Ripley--an immensely talented woman with local roots--out and on the table, I don’t think the show is hers anymore.
Last night at the Palace Theater, Ms. Ripley’s voice was an aching strain. Performing in such a vocally and emotionally demanding role for so long seems to have finally taken its toll on the show’s star. I didn’t want her to have to sing last night. And it didn’t seem like she wanted to either, pulling back during ensemble numbers. The beautiful and dense rock-inspired score by Tom Kitt is electrified and vibrant. It asks as much of its performers as this musical asks of its audience. Last night Ripley seemed like she had nothing more to give.
This is not to say that the musical was any less powerful in my eyes. But for newcomers experiencing this difficult and complex musical for the first time, I felt that allowing Ripley to go on was a major disservice. Yes, I was at the season announcement last spring. Yes, I almost squealed when Gina Vernaci revealed that Alice Ripley would tour with the show. But last night, when I heard some rude women lambasting Ripley’s voice and using that as fodder to dismiss the entire musical, I felt angry and disappointed. I felt ownership of the musical. I wanted to tell them to shut up, but they did have a point, didn’t they?
Perhaps Ripley was having an off night. Perhaps my desire for her to move on is unjustified. I absolutely don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing this beautiful musical, because it really does mean that much to me. I want to share it. But I also don’t want to have to make excuses for it.
Aside from Ripley, this production is gorgeous. The set remains the same, with the piercing Gestalt lighting, the cold, tired hovering eyes, the dramatic and stark colored lighting. When the walls of the family’s home finally turn out to reveal these unfeeling eyes, it’s a powerful moment. I’d love to write a whole piece on the lighting and set.
Sitting on the left side of the house, the energy of the rock orchestra was palpable, if a little muted at points. This music is thrilling, seamlessly integrated with the dialogue, and constantly pushing its performers to give everything they have.
As Natalie, Emma Hunton shines. She brings a believable and youthful energy to the show, while making Natalie an even bolder, stronger character. Her voice is immaculate. Her love interest Henry, played by Preston Sadleir, came off a little fey in his first scene, but eventually relaxed into a comfortable shrugging teenage stoner.
In this production, son Gabe seems oddly sexualized, thrusting his hips against set pieces, leering at Diana and the others, and adding an unnecessary element to the production. If Gabe is supposed to be an imagined perfect son, why does he seem so malicious? It’s an odd choice. Especially after seeing Aaron Tveit play the quintessential golden boy in the Broadway production, this touring Gabe seems more like a rapacious Puck.
Asa Somers has it hard as Dan, the quiet, unassuming husband who walks on eggshells to keep his family from falling apart. The challenge of this role is to bring not only pity, but sympathy. Somers succeeds to this end. His falsetto broke a few times in the second act, but none of these hiccups rendered his performance ineffective.
This is an important musical. I can’t say that enough. Yes, it demands so much of its audience. It’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable at times, and it forces viewers to consider mental illness without any sugar-coating. It’s not an after-school special. But at the end of the musical, those lucky enough to see it and be open to its message will leave feeling touched, challenged, and ultimately rewarded for having seen something real and truly human. It’s a remarkable feeling to leave a theater tired and full of pain and hope and appreciation. “Next To Normal” can give you all of these things if you’ll open your mind and let it.
Disclosure: As a member of PlayhouseSquare's Review Crew, I was given two complimentary tickets to the opening night production.