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Next to Normal

[Craig Shwartz]

We saw the touring production of the musical Next to Normal last night at the 5th Avenue Theatre. We got a mailing for it last month and when Gail tried to recycle the card, I pulled it out, saying maybe we should go. I then pinned the card to the bulletin board and proceeded to do nothing. But Gail went ahead and bought tickets to give me as my birthday present last week, by which point I couldn’t remember why seeing Next to Normal was so urgent.

We started the evening with dinner across the street at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery — Gail and me, Jessica and Joel. Convenient, but nothing special. I did like my beer. Then we arrived at the theater well ahead of time and took our seats once they opened the door at 7:30, giving us plenty of time to review the playbill.

That’s when the disappointment began, with the small slips of paper inserted that announced which actors would be replaced by which understudies. No Alice Ripley! Winner of the 2009 Tony for leading actress in a musical, creator of the musical’s central role. I suppose that’s what happens when there are matinees and evening performances on Saturdays and Sundays through the run, but I felt cheated.

I didn’t feel too good, either, when I looked up above the stage at the collection of speakers, the sort that they used to have hanging at the Kingdome before it was blown up, the sort that grace every indoor sports arena. I understand that the days of musicals with unmiked performers are long over, but this didn’t look promising.

And sure enough, much of the singing during the show would be better described as shouting, the better to be heard over the amplified instruments. During many of the more climactic moments, especially when several actors would be singing at once and the music would reach a crescendo, the actors would shout in unison, and while one could hear each of their voices, one couldn’t discern what words were wailed.

Not to complain. The show held my interest. I particularly enjoyed the set and the lighting. As for the story, which centers on the travails of a bipolar, schizophrenic woman and her family (I dare not say more, as the plot holds a few surprises), my one reservation was that it seemed to treat the therapists and their medicines as a source of humor, without exploring the relevant issues in any depth or providing illumination. There’s a story to be told, not that the musical has any obligation to tell that story. Indeed, today’s NYT has a piece, Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy, that is very much to the point:

Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry.

Trained as a traditional psychiatrist at Michael Reese Hospital, a sprawling Chicago medical center that has since closed, Dr. Levin, 68, first established a private practice in 1972, when talk therapy was in its heyday.

Then, like many psychiatrists, he treated 50 to 60 patients in once- or twice-weekly talk-therapy sessions of 45 minutes each. Now, like many of his peers, he treats 1,200 people in mostly 15-minute visits for prescription adjustments that are sometimes months apart. Then, he knew his patients’ inner lives better than he knew his wife’s; now, he often cannot remember their names. Then, his goal was to help his patients become happy and fulfilled; now, it is just to keep them functional.

Actually, as I re-read the passage, I see that the musical does, in effect, tell this very story. My objection, perhaps, has more to do with how facilely it’s told. Nonetheless, the musical does grapple with these issues, as it depicts the sufferings and occasional successes of the family. I’m happy to have seen it.

For a more enthusiastic view, I turn you over to NYT lead theater critic Ben Brantley. He wrote about the musical’s Off-Broadway incarnation in 2008. A year later, when it opened on Broadway, he was overwhelmed:

No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.

“Next to Normal” does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.

For the retooled version, first seen at the Arena Stage in Washington in November, they made the decision to toughen up and to cast off the last traces of cuteness. This meant never releasing the audience from the captivity of its characters’ minds. That decision has transformed a small, stumbling musical curiosity into a work of muscular grace and power.

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