Photo: Joan Marcus
A the beginning of Next to Normal, Diana, a cheery, energetic woman, banters with her son, chats with her daughter, and seduces her husband. Later, making their lunch, she starts laying bread on the table. And the chair. And the floor. More and more frantically, she throws together haphazard sandwiches and thrusts them at her family. And they know what they are seeing: her mania is back. Brian Yorkey's and Tom Kitt's beautiful, often propulsive score, clever and moving lyrics, and strong, intense storyline take the audience along on the always rocky, frequently painful, sometimes funny journey as Diana tries to find a treatment that will relieve her pain without taking away her personality. The changes that have been made since the Off-Broadway production are smart and successful, tightening the show's focus and digging deeper into its story. The cast, led by Alice Ripley giving the performance of a lifetime in the role of a lifetime, is uniformly excellent (though I miss Brian D'Arcy James from the Off-Broadway production). The show might benefit from being trimmed a bit, particularly toward the end of the first act, but overall I think this is a superb new musical, and I hope that many Tony Awards and a long run are in its future. (Spoilers in the next paragraphs.)
In the course of Next to Normal's various incantations, there has been some discussion about it having an "unrealistic happy ending." I found the ending neither unrealistic nor happy. Many people with bipolar disorder choose to go off their meds, since the side effects can be awful and the disorder can mess with the ability to make good decisions. It is likely that Diana has suicide attempts, electroconvulsive therapy, and institutionalization in her future--hardly a happy ending. In addition, at the close of the show, the daughter Natalie and her boyfriend Henry are busy re-creating all that is unhealthy in Diana and Dan's marriage.
What gives the show that sense of a happy ending is the final song, "We Need Some Light," a positive-sounding anthem that allows the entire cast to harmonize beautifully together . It reminded me of "The Song of Purple Summer" from Spring Awakening. In both cases, faux cheery music is used to (1) allow a big finish and (2) keep the audience from going home and slitting their wrists. These seem to me to be legitimate reasons to use these songs.