There’s a tug of war in play between ironic detachment and earnest sincerity in composer Tom Kitt and writer-lyricist Brian Yorkey’s musical about an ordinary family whose lives have inescapably been defined by a tragedy 18 years earlier. When sincerity wins out, “Next to Normal” has a heartfelt tenderness that’s genuinely moving. It also has Michael Greif’s dynamic production for Second Stage and two penetrating lead performances in its favor. But the emotional kick of this conflicted show is undersold by its fragmented score, with songs that don’t satisfyingly develop and lyrics that fall back on the cliches of mental illness.
It’s always gratifying to see creatives pushing the musical in new directions by embracing unconventional subject matter, and “Next to Normal” is a step up in terms of originality, ambition and artistry from Kitt’s commercially ill-fated, faux-hipster confection “High Fidelity.”
But while “Normal” is always engrossing, the frustration of the show’s musical storytelling seems amplified by its chosen focus. The imperfect, trial-and-error nature inherent in the treatment of chronic depression perhaps inevitably injects a note of irresolution.
The bipolar depressive at the center of the musical’s damaged family is Diana (Alice Ripley), a cute-looking, average mom of about 40, just a little too unnaturally up to disguise the tenuousness of her stability. Her husband Dan (Brian d’Arcy James) is the steadfast, sensitive type — slightly dull but dependable and supportive no matter where Diana’s mood swings take her.
Their smart but maladjusted daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) grapples with rejection issues stemming from an emotionally absent mother and threatens to follow Diana’s twisted path, while son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) is a typically ungovernable, unknowable teen.
The surreal duality between apparent normality and deep-rooted dysfunction is conveyed in bold strokes via Mark Wendland’s three-tiered set, depicting a suburban A-frame house with scaffolding and pop-art panels, emblazoned with a dazzling comicstrip palette by brilliant lighting designer Kevin Adams.
“I don’t feel like myself. I mean, I don’t feel anything,” says Diana to her psychopharmacologist (Asa Somers). “Patient stable,” he notes. The failure of her latest pharma-cocktail to keep her delusional episodes at bay prompts Diana to go off her meds, conspiring with Gabe to keep the decision quiet.
Around this point, Yorkey deftly reveals the roots of Diana’s illness and the exact nature of her inconsolable loss, radically shifting the audience’s perspective on the family as presented.
When Diana suffers a serious setback, another doctor (Somers again) convinces Dan to try electroconvulsive therapy. This development allows the repetitive, overlong first act to close on an energized high point with “Feeling Electric” (the show’s original title in an earlier version seen at the 2005 New York Musical Theater Festival).
Diana’s medic-as-rock star fantasy is underdeveloped, and it’s a flashy presentational device rather than a narrative extension, but the punchy song showcases musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s kick-ass six-piece band at its best.
Second act pays off more consistently thanks to a handful of more fully shaped numbers — notably, Diana and Dan’s poignant “Song of Forgetting”; Dan’s soulful reaffirmation of his vow of loyalty, “A Promise”; and the uplifting finale, “Let There Be Light.” (Numbering close to 40, song titles are identified in the text but not the program, with some little more than snippets.)
Overall, Kitt’s songs too often build only to peter out or veer off in awkward transitions and musically inorganic directions, and the stylistic mix frequently bears little relation in tone to what’s happening with the characters. Yorkey’s lyrics also disappoint, ladling on cloying pop-psych banalities (“It only hurts when I hide,” “Catch me, I’m falling,” “Please hear me calling”) that add to the impression we’re in a sticky musicalization of a Lifetime movie.
Adopting the hard-driving directorial style that became his trademark with “Rent,” Greif splashes the action across all three levels of Wendland’s set with vigorous muscularity. But he leans too hard on Damiano’s and Tveit’s characters to amp up the raw urgency missing from the songs. Adam Chanler-Berat is given more room to breathe as Natalie’s persistent boyfriend, and Somers has a nice mellow authority as Diana’s doctors.
But the beating heart of the musical and the chief reason it remains absorbing is the emotional integrity both Ripley and d’Arcy James bring to their characters. These two accomplished Broadway vets can make even the most unformed songs seem whole. Despite an obvious tickle in her throat giving her a slight croakiness at the first press perf, Ripley’s vocals brim with sweetness and sorrow. And d’Arcy James’ interpretive ability to uncover hidden nuances in a song makes his character’s arc the most intensely felt journey of the show.
Yorkey’s book could perhaps use a stronger point of view on grief management, weighing the effects of erasing painful memories against continuing to work through them when any lasting balm likely will remain elusive. But clearly the tentative nature of this inexact science is a key theme. In affectingly human terms, Ripley and d’Arcy James embody the message that while some losses never recede, moving forward is as close as we get to healing.