Review: The Phoenix Theatre’s “Next to Normal”

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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.

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