Review: The Phoenix Theatre's "Next to Normal"

February 6, 2013
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The Phoenix Theatre’s production of “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical about the impact of a woman’s mental illness on herself and her family, is an earnest, unique curiosity, more admirable than affecting…at least, for me.

In talking to others who have seen this and the New York production of the show, I’ve come to realize that that it’s near impossible to predict who is going to buy into “Normal.”

Those whose families have struggled with mental illness? Some will find it simplified and irresponsible, others will see it as profound.

Therapists? Some are likely to be angry; other’s to say “it’s about time.”

Musical theater buffs? Some have it on a pedestal; other’s wonder why the characters seem to do little except sing at each other.

I could divide everyone I know into those who would or wouldn’t like “Cats” or “Ragtime” with a margin of error of maybe 5%. With “Next to Normal,” well, there’s no telling.

There are those deeply impacted by the torment-filled show and see its no heroes/no villains exploration of its serious subject as cause enough for praise. There are others for whom “Next to Normal” is little more than an exhausting angst-fest, in-your-face but with little to say. For them, it’s just as artificial as lighter musicals, only with a greater sense of self-importance.

I can’t speak for the Broadway production, but at the Phoenix, an uncertain tone, less-than-rocking orchestrations and an acceptable-but-not-exceptional cast accentuate instead of mask the show’s weaknesses. These include power ballads that may have been more impressive when diffused through a larger theater and backed by a stronger band, a subplot that doesn’t rise above “Afterschool Special” level, and a confused, would-be empowering ending that isn’t earned. I’d be more specific, but I’m trying to resist spoilers. Suffice it to say that if the writing, directing, and acting came together more often the way they do at the end of the first act—and if the overall impact was as sad and truthful as the way the lead character’s confusion heartbreakingly comes through in actress Emily Ristine’s eyes—“Next to Normal” would be a must see. For just about anyone.

Your thoughts?

  • Next to Nevermind
    Thanks, Lou, for confirming my suspicion that this one wasn't worth attending. I almost saw it in NYC when it first opened, mainly because I have been a fan of Louis Hobson from back when he was in practically everything at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. I was really hoping to get to see him follow in Cheyenne Jackson's footsteps from Seattle to Broadway. After seeing the performance on the Tony Awards and reading more about the show, I opted for something less depressing. Sounds like I made the right choice. So, instead tonight it is opening night for 9 to 5 at Beef and Boards. Not a spectacular show to begin with, but at least I will leave happy.
    • worth attending
      Barbara, I never want to talk anyone out of going to see a show (okay, I did try to do that when Monopause: the Musical played the Athenaeum, but that was a special case). As I wrote, "Next to Normal" really speaks to some people. Your mileage may vary. Still, I'm glad that, if you aren't going, then you are opting to go to another show instead of resorting to TV.--Lou
    • I'd still give it a shot
      I swa Next to Normal at both Arena Stage in DC (when it was in its temporary Crystal City venue) and in NYC. You've aptly noted that it's tough to say who is going to really appreciate the show. I do think it is a more challenging production to do in a very small space. It's rock-oriented score filled with heavy ballads needs space to reverberate and dissipate. And because it essentially is an ensemble show, each cast member must really be firing on all cylinders for the experience to resonate. That said, it's not your typical musical and that alone is a reason that theatre lovers should check it out. It has a few gorgeous songs and explores issues not often found in a musical. Even if you don't love it, you'll find plenty to like.
    • Loved it!
      I saw Next To Normal on opening night and was thoroughly impressed with cast and the production as a whole. I'm going again this week and taking more people with me. I would urge everyone to go see this well done Pulitzer Prize winning musical!

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