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Next to Normal – Seattle, Mar 2, 2011 by YFA

Next to Normal

I walked into this musical with high expectations, and it surprisingly did not disappoint. Some background – Next to Normal deals with the subject of the effect bipolar disorder has on one’s family, so it is definitely a heavier subject matter. It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2009 Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Lead Actress – making it one of the rare few to get both Pulitzer and Tony awards. To set the bar for comparison, Rent was the last musical to get this achievement. Did I also mention, Michael Greif, who directed Rent, also directed this musical? The composers (music, lyrics and book) actually came from Issaquah, WA, which is one of the suburbs of Seattle – so there was definitely a lot of excitement when Next to Normal made it big out east on Broadway (it did lose Best Musical in 2009 to Billy Elliot, which I’ll be catching in April).

I don’t want to give away the plot in case you do catch it (and I strongly recommend you do, the US tour ends in Toronto in June 2011), the plot is straightforward and easy to understand, so please do NOT pre-study this musical as it will ruin the surprises and affect the overall experience.

The stage design is reminiscent of Rent (definitely has the fingerprints of Michael Greif’s direction) – the orchestra is all on stage, and intriguingly they are split up on the left side and right side. Stylistically it is not rock like Rent, but it is not traditional classical like Wicked either… in fact, if I were to describe the orchestration, I’d say it is like… worship team style 😐 It basically consists of a 4 piece band (keys, drums, a/e-guitar, bass) and some strings (think 1 violin, and the bassist switches to cello/double bass at times). So the instrumentation is very much broken down (which seems to be the modern thing to do as it keeps production costs low) but it does not take away from the musical at all. The stage is divided into 3 levels, much like a house with the walls taken out, which reminds me of August: Osage County. I commented before the show started that this setup is more common for plays than in musicals, because they can do scene transitions easily by moving the spotlight between levels while the other floors are getting setup, but this is less of an issue for scene changes as they can tide it over with a song. To my surprise, Next to Normal uses the multi-floor setup brilliantly to do a lot of parallel movement across levels, notably “Why Stay?/A Promise” when the daughter/boyfriend and husband/wife sings the same song across different levels and expands on two different relationships at the same time.

I generally liked Act 2 more than Act 1 (though fellow musical goers disagree on this one) because Act 2 has the hallmarks of what any amazing musical should have – it reprises a LOT of musical themes from Act 1, and brings them back with different meaning because of the plot (much like Wicked’s “I’m not that girl”). The musical structure is very tight as there are a lot of overlapping vocal parts, but not to an extent that it gets confusing as to what is going on. I was a little concerned as to whether they would drag out the ending, but I think looking back the musical ended at the right spot as it built up to the grand finale necessary to close off a musical.

The musical also contains a few references and allusions – the ones I caught were quotes from Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

Next to Normal also has a few memorable, catchy numbers that I can hum to as I exit the theater. The only downside is because the subject matter is so serious, the songs are hardly reusable in everyday life (unlike Rent’s “Seasons of Love” or Wicked’s “Defying Gravity”) – thought I suspect if I were to let the experience settle and if I study the soundtrack more, I’ll find good use of their songs. This is the tiny ding to the musical for me – hopefully one that will get fixed over time :). For this reason I’d rate this musical a 4.9, if that’s at all possible… but for all practical purposes it is a 5-star musical for me, joining in the ranks of Rent and Wicked (finally!)

One parting note – instead of getting Alice Ripley (the Tony winning lead actress) I got the understudy Pearl Sun, which could have been a blessing in disguise. Checking out youtube clips, Alice Ripley definitely is a stronger actor, but apparently she has been suffering from vocal issues on this tour and can get quite pitchy and raspy, as reported by other reviewers. The understudy (or standby for this role) did a great job with the vocals – although being Asian, there’s that advantage of looking younger than your age which worked against her in this case as it made her role as a mom less convincing for me.

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