WHEN THE LIGHTS GO ON ALL OVER THE STAGE
by Harvey Perr
published May 1, 2009
Next to Normal
now playing on Broadway at the Booth Theater
There are six characters in Next to Normal, but, by play’s end, there is decidedly a
seventh character, without whom this endlessly interesting new musical wouldn’t find its final glorious illumination. That seventh
character is Kevin Adams’ extraordinary lighting design. No lighting designer was ever given a last line like the one Next to Normal gives to Mr. Adams. And no lighting designer has ever responded so eloquently to the
It is by some special alchemy always possible in the theater, but not always achieved, that Next to Normal becomes one of the season’s special delights by the time it arrives at its eye-opening
conclusion. Who could have imagined that the mental breakdown of a suburban housewife could supply the material for a musical in the first
place? And, to tell the truth, things don’t look too promising for a long while.
Diana’s plight seems too mundane; she lives with the ghostly memory of her tragically deceased son. She goes to therapists, but
she tests the patience of her husband, and tries the patience of her daughter, who is still alive and in desperate need of some serious
attention herself. Lyrically, there is life in the first half, but, musically, it doesn’t seem to have any real sinew. And the dialogue
tends to the sort of platitudes you would expect from a psychological drama; lots of stuff about finding the light, or finding the keys to
There’s more than enough to keep you in the theater, however, and, in particular, there is Alice Ripley, who brings to the part of
Diane a searching honesty and, in her singing, a dramatic urgency that is something beautiful to behold because of its restraint, because
of how much stillness she projects even as her madness intensifies.
What is urged is that patience and Miss Ripley will keep you in your seat through the second act. For with the breakthrough Diane
experiences, the musical itself breaks through. Musically, there is a groundswell and one gorgeous song after another, from the very
talented Tom Kitt, comes flooding forth from its beating heart. The glimmers of light keep getting brighter and more varied in their colors.
The interplay of the ensemble is a display of the most intelligent kind of dedication. Slowly but surely, J. Robert Spencer as Diana’s
husband, Jennifer Damiano as her daughter, Adam Chandler Berat’s dead son, Louis Hobson’s attendant doctors, and Aaron Tveit as the
daughter’s young swain and would-be savior, all come into their own, moving in and out of each other’s lives with delicacy and tact when
needed, fury and rage when that is what’s needed. Brian Yorkey’s book becomes more dimensional and more interestingly complex. And Michael
Greif’s direction, smart enough to build quietly, rises to a crescendo of sorts and, once there, holds you in its grip.
But, always, through it all, there is Alice Ripley. It is she, above all, who keeps taking Next to Normal to a higher place. And what is particularly refreshing, in the end, is that the problems
don’t really get resolved. Illumination is just that: a way to see. Ah, the light bulb goes on. Ah, life goes on.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Joan Marcus