Unlike the bipolar manic-depressive at the center of “Next to Normal,” who draws no lasting salvation from her trials with different medications, this original new pop-rock musical has benefited unequivocally from treatment. Composer Tom Kitt, writer-lyricist Brian Yorkey and director Michael Greif have made a lot of smart changes en route to Broadway, giving the show a more assertive personality, a more consistent tone, sharper focus and greater depth to its relationships. While its weaknesses have not been entirely erased, they are outweighed by the intimate musical’s ambition, sincerity and heightened emotional involvement.
Over the course of its engagements at Off Broadway’s Second Stage and then Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., extensive improvements have been made. Most notably, a couple of jarring songs have been replaced, and the wry detachment that undermined the show’s dramatic heart has been softened into gentler, less distancing humor. In its take on themes of love, loss, family, illness and grief, the musical recalls William Finn and James Lapine’s “Falsettos,” and with its modest scale and universal sentiments, it should have a similarly long life in multiple incarnations.
Kitt’s score remains uneven, with a few too many talky, undershaped songs whose pretty melodies trail off or get muddied by overworked counterpoint. And Yorkey’s lyrics still fall prey to Lifetime cliches of mental illness: “Who’s crazy?,” “Catch me I’m falling,” “It only hurts when I breathe.” But there are a number of punchy anthems that persuasively describe what the characters are feeling, conveyed with bracing conviction by a terrific cast under Greif’s propulsive direction.
Design contributions also have evolved impressively. The Booth stage is a snug fit for Mark Wendland’s three-tiered set, which combines stark scaffolds with Benday-dot pop-art panels to depict an ordinary suburban home, its windows giving way to giant portraits of the eyes of unstable mother Diana (Alice Ripley) as the chaos in her head dominates the life of the house. In addition to allowing a clear view of the hard-working six-piece band, it provides a symmetrical playing space to offset the frenetic movement of Greif’s direction. And Kevin Adams’ dynamic lighting packs its own adrenaline charge, bathing the stage in dazzling blues, purples and reds or chilling whites.
The show tracks Diana’s path as she slips off the rails after a long period of relative calm, prompting fresh assaults in an ongoing battle of trial-and-error psychopharmacological solutions. But as the smoky-voiced Ripley reflects in one of Kitt’s most affecting numbers, “I Miss the Mountains,” ironing out the delusional highs and devastating lows can be an empty substitute for living.
It’s impossible to outline the chief contributing factor to Diana’s illness without spoiling a key perspective-shifting revelation, shrewdly withheld in Yorkey’s book. But the show acquires its robust dramatic shape from the ways in which Diana’s decision to go off her meds affects the people closest to her.
That group includes supportive husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer), enabling son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) and unsettled daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), who threatens to repeat the rocky patterns of her parents’ relationship with her undaunted boyfriend Henry (Adam Chandler-Berat). As it becomes clear that any period of tranquility will be temporary, Diana is convinced by her doctors (double-cast Louis Hobson) to try hypnosis and electroshock therapy. But when a complete cure remains elusive, the family braces for change.
Onstage almost throughout, Ripley never loses sight of Diana’s warmth and self-deprecating humor, on the one hand, or of her despair and scared confusion, on the other, no matter where her wild mood swings land. There’s tremendous poignancy in her lost state, and in the complicated layers of feeling that bind her to Dan. Spencer is equally strong. Something of a Dean Jones look-alike, his Everyman-nice-guy appearance and solicitous behavior toward his wife play beautifully against his suggestions of impatience and defeat or his outbursts of righteous anger, making his journey no less moving than Diana’s.
Similarly, Damiano’s hostile vulnerability is well paired with Chandler-Berat’s sweet stoner vibe. Tveit’s character has gained in texture since Second Stage, adding shades of ambiguity that rescue Gabe from angelic blandness or cookie-cutter youthful recklessness. Often lurking in the shadows, he’s a bewitching, almost destructive force, a benevolent pusher who keeps Diana hooked on dangerous memories while conspiring in her most questionable decisions.
Each of the four family members gets at least one powerful signature song (Diana’s “I Miss the Mountains,” Dan’s “I Am the One,” Natalie’s “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” and Gabe’s “I’m Alive”). These render the emotional stakes lucid in a first act that strides through its exposition with brisk assurance. And the increasingly sorrowful second act channels the frustration of an inexact science — in which the path toward healing is inevitably an imperfect one — into wrenching drama. Even with the inherent hope of a closing number titled “Light,” the musical deserves credit for refusing to tie things up in too-consolatory fashion.
Its choice of subject alone is reason to admire “Next to Normal.” Too many small-scale musicals think even smaller — the trite growing pains of “Glory Days,” the self-congratulatory artistic masturbation of “[title of show],” the wishy-washy sentimentality of “The Story of My Life” — so it’s unsurprising they disappear fast. But the creative team here poses a potentially hackneyed question — is it better to feel pain or smother it? — and gives it freshness, urgency and emotional integrity.