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picture - Next to NormalTheater Review

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 demand.


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 the gateway.


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.


picture - Next to NormalWhat 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 @


all photos are by Joan Marcus


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