Thursday, April 28, 2011

'Next To Normal' Brings Unusual Depth To The Musical Form -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Next To Normal
a recent musical presented by Broadway in Chicago
Bank of America Theatre
Through May 8, 2011

Next To Normal is a recent Broadway Musical yet it earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Unlike a preponderance of new musicals, it isn't based on a popular movie, nor does it feature a score comprised of old rock tunes. It also doesn't include any of what one might expect in terms of traditional showtunes, costumes or choreography.

Although it enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim--besides the Pulitzer, it earned 3 Tony Awards, was nominated for 8 more and garnered excellent reviews in New York--and ran for nearly 2 years on Broadway, it's likely a show that isn't well-known by the general public. 

But with an original story--freshly written for the musical stage--revolving around a modern family in which the mother is struggling with bipolar disorder and depression, accompanied by a solid new score, it's a show that merits applauding even before it starts. Especially as its first national tour arrived in Chicago with Alice Ripley reprising her Tony-winning lead role.

And as an emotionally complex and compelling adult-oriented narrative that demonstrates great musical theater need not be upbeat and over-the-top, it well deserved the instant standing ovation it earned upon its conclusion.

Tuesday night--its first in Chicago--was my initial exposure to the show and I greatly enjoyed it, finding the gravitas of the material a welcome new tack in musical lexicon. Beyond being about a woman with emotional demons, it offers plenty of shrewd commentary on our times and lives.

Still, having read and heard so many great things about it, I feel like I must rationalize giving Next To Normal only @@@@1/2 instead of five. But I can't quite earmark it among the upper, upper echelon of favorite musicals (like those I cited here) and I agree with Billy Elliot having beaten it out for the 2009 Tony for Best Musical.

Certainly, Ripley is excellent--although from the balcony of the Bank of America Theatre her voice didn't seem quite as robust as I would've expected--as were all the cast members, including Asa Somers, Curt Hansen and Emma Hunton, all of great voice that served to elevate the mid-tempo rock score.

I am definitely not suggesting the music was subpar; it was more than passable but I felt that it could've used a bit more edge. An occasional screaming guitar lick and some angrier touches to the lyrics would've aptly paralleled the tumult enacted onstage.

While the songs serviced the storyline very well and included true highlights like "I Am The One" and "I'm Alive," not enough were superlative in their own right. I had listened to the cast album beforehand and yet nothing much has stuck with me two nights after seeing the show. I don't think the album is one I will return to simply for listening pleasure.

So no, despite all that was wonderful about it, I can't say Next To Normal is nearly as good--or at least as enjoyable--as Les Miserables or Wicked or West Side Story or The Producers or Rent, whose director Michael Greif is at the helm here. But he and the entire company clearly have done an estimable job in making a difficult storyline not only sing, but resonate.

Next To Normal is undoubtedly one of the best musicals you'll have an opportunity to see in Chicago this year--especially among those that have never played here before--with a cast and production every bit as good as you'd see on Broadway. If you love musicals, this show is not to be missed. And if you prefer drama, but also like music, you actually may like it even more.

1 comment:

Greg Boyd said...

Couldn't disagree with you more about "Billy Elliot" being better. Don't get me wrong: I loved "Billy Elliot". But this show was stunning. The story was deep, insightful, and emotionally satisfying, and the acting and signing were breathtaking.

And a lack of superlative musical numbers? I really have to disagree on that point. The two you mention are both great, but there were so many others: "Light", "Just Another Day", "Superboy and the Invisible Girl"... not a weak number in the entire show.

Loved every second of this.