Saturday, September 27, 2014

Next to Normal

Next to Normal is a superb musical. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's depiction of a woman derailed by mental illness and loss, and of the people around her, mixes compassion, humor, insight, and a wonderful score to explore the deepest parts of human lives. It's a staggering achievement in many ways. (The plot is discussed in mega-spoiler detail below.)

Benjamin Sheff, Carman Napier
Photo: Bella Muccari
The Gallery Players' production of Next to Normal (running through October 5) is an honorable, straightforward, and frequently successful attempt to grapple with this challenging show. Next to Normal needs, first and foremost, a top-notch actress and singer to play Diana, the lead character, as she struggles with bipolar disorder, disappointment, and grief. Carman Napier is up to the challenge. Her performance is smart and subtle; her singing is excellent and her enunciation is clear; and she looks and feels right in the part. She's too young, but she's so good that it doesn't matter.

Next to Normal also needs to be technically successful; the sound, in particular, is quite important. In this aspect, unfortunately, the production fails. At best, the balance between music and performer is barely okay; at worst, it is terrible. The night I saw the show, Lindsay Bayer, as Natalie, was frequently inaudible, through no fault of her own. It wasn't clear if her mike was broken or the sound cues were off, but her performance was lost. As was much else.

Besides Napier, the cast is uneven. Chris Caron is seriously miscast as Dan; he brings an inappropriate musical comedy vibe to serious scenes and lacks the gravitas that can let a young performer get away with an older role. I suspect that Bayer is pretty good, but there was no way to tell for sure. Luke Hoback provides an interestingly creepy Gabe. John Wascavage is charming as Henry. Benjamin Sheff effectively plays an array of doctors and might have been a better choice to play Dan. The costumes are largely unattractive and unflattering. The set brings nothing aesthetically but does allow the show some space. To the extent the music can be heard, the band sounds quite good. The lighting is frequently too dark but does provide useful emotional underpinning to some scenes.

[here be spoilers]
Changes from Off-Broadway to Broadway

The Off-Broadway incarnation of Next to Normal was much different than the final version, and the changes could be used to teach a class on theatrical development. The Off-Broadway version was funny and often silly; the first act finale was a big solo by Diana's psychiatrist that completely threw off the focus of the show. Kitt and Yorkey, along with director Michael Greif, decided to go the serious route in the rewrites, and they bravely and smartly jettisoned some highly entertaining numbers because they just didn't fit.

See, for example, here (10:00), where Alice Ripley nails an inappropriately musical-comedy nervous breakdown at Costco to set the plot in motion. In the contrast, in the final version the family prepares for the day, with Diana becoming more and more manic until she is making lunch sandwiches on the floor and complaining that the room is swimming. The Costco number is funny. Diana on the floor is sad and frightening. (The Costco episode leaves a small echo in a later song when Natalie sings, "Here's the headline in the paper/when you freaked out at the market.")

Another change is jumping directly into Diana's relationship with Gabe. The Off-Broadway version started with "We Need Some Light," which remains in the show as a finale. Now the show starts with Diana scared because it's late and Gabe is not home yet. When finally he appears, she sings, 
It's the seventh night this week I've sat til morning
Imaging the ways you might have died
In a freak September ice storm with no warning
There's a gang war, there's a bird flu
Trains collide.

This would have to count as reverse foreshadowing I guess, since Gabe has been dead for many years and exists only in Diana's mind.

In contrast, one of my favorite changes is small and wry:
Old version: Cause what doesn't kill me makes me stronger
New version: Cause what doesn't kill me doesn't kill me

Aware that Dan's character was not fully fleshed out, Kitt and Yorkey added a song in which he explains, "But I can't give up now.../Cause I've never been alone.../I could never be alone." Giving his point of view more room is a good idea, but the song ignores his genuine love for Diana. I prefer when he sings,
Take this chance, [ie, try this treatment so you won't attempt suicide again]
'cause it may be our last
to be free,
to let go of the past,
And to try,
To be husband and wife
To let love never die--
Or to just live our life

Other Aspects of the Final Version
There are two aspects of the final version that are particularly fascinating. Who is the character Gabe? And will Natalie and Henry recreate Diana and Dan's marriage?

For Diana, Gabe is clearly an hallucination, a desperate clinging to the child whose death sent her life spiraling. But he's not a simple creation--he represents love and loss but also sexuality and yearning. That Kitt and Yorkey have Gabe gently lead Diana to her suicide attempt is nothing short of brilliant.

Who is this Gabe to Natalie? The actual Gabe died before she was born, and she never interacts with the version we see on stage. But it is he who puts a pile of medications in front of her, which she then goes on to abuse. For Natalie, the character of Gabe personifies the damage that has been done to her being raised by a mother who says, "You know I love you/I love you as much as I can," and who cannot see her in any real way. Gabe's space in Natalie's life is enormous and eventually drives her to self-medicate. His spirit/ghost/avatar makes the effect physical by supplying the drugs.

For Dan, Gabe is grief. For years, he has been so focused on Diana's pain that he has not even begun to deal with his own. He won't even say Gabe's name. But once Diana leaves him, the grief descends, and the character of Gabe insists that Dan acknowledge it. (The Gallery Players' production includes the lovely touch of Dan completing the family by adding a photo of the infant Gabe to one of Dan, Diana, and Natalie.)

Henry and Natalie's relationship seems ill-fated at best. Natalie's odds of mental illness are not small, and Henry is Mr. Classic-Enabler-Wannabe. "I can be perfect," he sings. "Perfect for you." Well, no he can't, but he may well spend many years trying. It's silly to care so much about a fictional couple, but I sincerely wish them well.

I also wish Diana well. Her decision to go without medication or any more ECT is a dangerous one, as she knows:
Maybe I've lost it at last.
Maybe my last lucid moment has passed.
I'm dancing with death, I suppose...
But really--who knows?

The likelihood of Diana doing well is not large, as Kitt and Yorkey know, and they end the show not with a character-specific number but with a touchy-feely, somewhat generic (though very pretty) song announcing that there will be light. To their credit, even here they don't promise a happy ending. For example, Diana sings, "And you find out you don't have to be happy at all to be happy you're alive," a not-exactly-inspiring sentiment. The song also includes these lyrics:
Give me pain if that's what's real
It's the price we pay to feel.
The price of love is loss
But still we pay
We love anyway

But Kitt and Yorkey don't want to send the audience out ready for a mass wrist-slitting, so they give us this:
Day after day...
We'll find the will to find our way,
Knowing that the darkest sky
Will someday see the sun--
When our long night is done
There will be light...
There will be light

And they assure us many more times that there will be light.

[end of spoilers]
Anyway: the Gallery Players' production, with all of its faults, understands Next to Normal and presents a largely truthful version. With the sound fixed, this would be a show well worth seeing.

(third row, press ticket)

1 comment:

msdworks said...

If one had not seen Next to Normal, this review gives a really good idea of the overall play. Having seen it at least more than twice both on and off broadway, the spoilers were, for me, very illuminating.