next to normal

Music by Tom Kittnext to norman national tour

Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Directed by Michael Greif

Musical direction by Bryam Perri

Produced by Broadway In Chicago

At the Bank of America Theatre, Chicago

Pop-rock score gives weird vibe for dark story about mental illness

Why anyone would want to make a musical about mental illness and it’s debilitating effects on a family is one of life’s mysteries? And, if anyone really must have such darkness expressed in song, they best use serious baroque or other classical chamber music influences to express the pain, angst and agony of the mentally ill on and her dysfunctional family. Instead, we have an amazingly un-melodic and forgettable score that is so rock-infused that every song and every singer sounded alike. I mean throughout. Next to Normal arrives for a one week run at the Bank of America Theatre in a glitzy manic production.

next to normal national tour 2011

I knew the songs would hardly be memorable when they we not listed in the Playbill. Much of the show relied on “talk-songs” that found the players singing their dialogue that mostly ended up becoming a soaring anthem that necessitated much screaming over the pounding percussion. That Broadway pop-rock style of singing that finds singers holding a note in a predictable place every so many words becomes redundant and ‘sing-song-y-like.’  After four or five songs, my ear waited for the long drawn out word at the end of a line: “I am a-l-i-v-e–a–a-l-l-i–i–v–e” sings Gabe. This style irritates me with its sameness and frequency that ultimately leads to screaming at the songs climax. Blame Rent for  starting this awful trend.

next to normal national tour 2011

The subject matter: the life-long struggles of a mentally ill mother and wife suffering from bipolar disorder just didn’t work for me as a rock musical. Tony Award winner Alice Ripley was unimpressive as Diana – the mentally challenged mother. Her voice seem raspy and throaty. Asa Somers, as Dan, the devoted husband sang his heart out but his shaky voice seem strained by the demands of that rock singing style. Emma Hunton, as the rebellious daughter Natalie, screamed through her numbers. The women and the men each sounded so much alike in style and vocally that, at times, I wasn’t sure who was singing.

next to normal national tour 2011

The story has nothing profound or insightful to offer concerning mental illness and the score was tepid and forgettable.  I guess I’m just too old fashion to appreciate a pop operetta?  I just can’t see the merit and enjoyment factor in a “downer” musical like Next To Normal? Fans of rock musicals will enjoy this show more that I did.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Will Fink’s Review:

Next to Normal

I promise, as soon as Broadway in Chicago brings something worthwhile to this city, I will tell you (and have done).  But Next to Normal does not qualify.  It is bland, trite, and thoroughly mediocre.  Which is not to say its heart isn’t in the right place . . . but I seem to be getting ahead of myself.

next to normal national tour

Next to Normal is a musical about a woman with bipolar disorder (plus some), who goes through manic and depressive phases, as well as delusions: she occasionally sees her son, who, we find out about 20 minutes in, died 17 years ago.  And this play wants to treat this woman, who is going through so much, with respect.  It wants to tap into the current push advocating the (at least potential) normalcy of individuals with bipolar disorder.  And that’s something, Christ knows, I can get behind 100% – because it is a social stigma to have the disease, and that hardly helps the people who suffer from it.  So, I applaud the writers and producers of this play for attempting to be advocates of this movement.  But, sadly, they fall short of that.  For one thing, this woman is particularly troubled (seeing your dead infant son as the age he would be, had he lived, is sort of beyond the pale for the disorder); and they also seem to not quite be able to decide what they want to say about treatment.  They’re anti-Pharma (something, again, I can get behind: I’ve had too many friends who hated taking their drugs, especially when that was the main part of the treatment, because it made them feel like they were living a life without emotions or colors); but then psychotherapy doesn’t work, either.  They have their most sympathetic doctor, the one who really wants to help her and wants the best for her, really invests, force her into shock therapy, which also doesn’t work.  “What if it’s not in my mind, or my brain, but in my soul?” she asks, banally.  And throughout, the son is singing about how he controls her, and how to start the healing process.  “If you can’t grieve me, you can’t leave me,” for one, and later he seems to say that if she could just acknowledge his name, she’d be all better.  Well, things don’t work like that.  And they don’t end up that way at the end of the play, but even saying something like that trivializes the disorder.  So, they ultimately fail to be true advocates.

next to normal national tour

And the piece itself – the music, the plot generally – is very middle-of-the-road.  It really strives for that “Broadway Sound” – you know, actors with choked voices singing with too much vibrato, holding single syllables for far longer than really necessary.  Which is not to say that the actors on stage aren’t good singers.  That’s not the case: they’re most all good singers, they just have to sing in this abhorrent style, which is neither healthy nor aesthetic.  The lyrics are miserable.  They’re just depressingly bad.  With lines like, “Reading the obituaries, wishing you were dead,” they really clunk along.  I started a list on the program of absolutely tepid rhymes:

  • Try/cry
  • Hear/clear
  • Share/nowhere
  • Years/tears
  • Rain/pain
  • Head/dead
  • Know/go
  • Heard/word
  • Side/wide/suicide
  • Hurt and how/give up now
  • Known/alone
  • Brain/pain
  • Me/Henry
  • Fears/years
  • Whole/soul
  • Room/bloom
  • Dirt/hurt
  • Despair/there
  • Try/get by
  • Light/sight

And then I ran out of room.  They’re only worse with the rest of the lines.  It was like someone started a collection of all the most ordinary, standard, overused rhymes out there, and decided to write a musical around them.  The music itself occasionally had its moments, but more than once it sounded like someone wishing they could be Warren Zevon.  But no one can be Warren Zevon, to try is folly, and to do so when your music just isn’t very good is simply insulting.  He was arguably one of the best songwriters and composers of the last 50 years.  You are not.  If you really want to learn how to coin a phrase, give a song a twist, or write really affecting music, there are great examples out there; just not in this musical.

Did this show have its moments?  Yes.  I chuckled occasionally, grinned another few times.  The jokes and banter captured the Zeitgeist (sometimes too much so).  The production value is impressive; the set, which consisted of scaffolding with plastic walls that had images of a house and face superimposed on them moved in and out, setting the stage for the scenes.  The sound mix was really not bad, the lighting solid though not revolutionary.  It’s generally well-directed, well-acted, well-choreographed.  It’s just not entertaining, or good.  And it’s sort of cheesecake-y, at least for the girls.  The ghost, played by the tepid Curt Hansen, is the hunkiest ghost I’ve ever seen.  And Preston Sadleir, who was a stand-out, was a pretty dreamy Henry.  Jeremy Kushnier was very good, as well, although the ambiguities with the doctor later on may need to be ironed out (that’s a directorial thing).  Emma Hunton was right-on, too, as Natalie.  The only person who didn’t really jive last night was Alice Ripley, who spent much of the second act steeped in melodrama.  Her voice was also by far the most constricted, to the extent that some of her words became unclear (“know” sounded like “now,” e.g.).  Overall, the musical had its moments; but they were few and far-between.  The production’s impressive, but the material isn’t.  If you want to pay too much to see a piece of theater that fails ingloriously at what it sets out to do, but with nice production value and some eye-candy, feel free; otherwise, sit this one out.

Somewhat Recommended

Will Fink

Date Reviewed: April 27, 2011

For full show information, go to the page for Next to Normal at TheatreinChicago.

At the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, IL, call 800-775-2000,, tickets $32 – $95, Tuesdays thru Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 & 7:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission, through May 8, 2011