Stop the Insanity: Broadway’s “Next to Normal”

"But honey, he's dead!" Marin Mazzie as Diana celebrates the wrong kid's birthday as Jason Danieley's Dan points out her error. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

When I saw Alice Ripley and her co-stars perform a number from Next to Normal on the Tony Awards in 2009, I thought, well, there’s a show I never have to see. One year later…, several people have since told me how wonderful it is, I’m a fan of Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, the real-life husband and wife team who have taken over the leads on Broadway, there were half-price tickets available for a Sunday evening show, a time when most Broadway stages are dark, and so, what the hell.

What the hell, indeed.

This story of a woman’s bipolar disorder and how it affects her family is truly, unremittingly awful.  It’s a Lifetime: Television for Women movie turned Broadway rock musical. Brian Yorkey’s unimaginative lyrics and the generic storytelling of his book ensure that the characters never rise above the simplistic labels he applies to them (bipolar housewife, dull but supportive husband, resentful teenage daughter, etc.).  How bad is the writing?  (Spoiler alert: but then if you’re reading this, you’ve either already seen this show or you never will.)  At the show’s beginning, the couple’s son Gabe (the energetic Kyle Dean Massey) complains to mom Diana (Mazzie) about dad Dan (Danieley), “He acts like I don’t even exist.”  Well guess what? He doesn’t! He’s Diana’s hallucination of the child Dan and Diana lost in infancy 17 years ago, the traumatic event that sparked her bipolar symptoms.  (Why the infant hallucination has grown into a hunky 17-year-old probably has more to do with marketing than the actual nature of bi-polar hallucinations.  Later, as Gabe sings that he’ll remain “forever young,” you think, how so?  If he’s been growing for the past 17 years, why wouldn’t he continue to age?)

In the second act, when Diana undergoes shock therapy (yup), she alludes to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Frances, and then her gurney is rolled around in time to the music.  If you added a few more gurneys, you’d think you were seeing a number at a Mel Brooks show, the musical version of High Anxiety, say.

Mazzie seems to be trying something interesting at the beginning of show: she looks like hell: every inch a broken women, but 15-20 minutes in she begins crying and then never stops. Danieley’s Dan mopes around with his befuddled attempts at compassion, until we learn in the second act that his denial of his own grief over their son’s death is just as toxic to the family as Diana’s manic-depression  (Oy.) The only real human being in the cast is Henry, the daughter’s would-be boyfriend, sweetly played at the performance I saw by understudy Brian Crum.

There’re approximately 657 costume changes for each character, but since they all wear rather generic clothes (jeans and T-shirts are costume designer Jeff Mahshie’s basic trope), it seems rather pointless other than to illustrate the passage of time (and believe, me, you need no help feeling the passage of time in this show.) Director Michael Greif (Rent) has the characters climbing and running around the three levels of Mark Wendland’s ugly, constructivistic set, which largely consists of scaffolding.  (You see, their house isn’t really a home.)

Tom Kitt’s pounding rock score has the six-member cast caterwauling incessantly, and although it isn’t strictly a through-sung musical, there’s still way too much of the stuff.  The singing is uniformly professional, although sometimes you can hear Mazzie’s wonderfully trained voice singing in the middle registers, and you know what you’re missing when she has to screech rock-style in the upper registers.  The actors scream out their emotions, pounding the audience into submission, and by the amount of sniffles heard from the audience at play’s end, they’re largely successful.  Listening to those around me and seeing the actors sobbing on stage, I was put in mind of Pauline Kael’s infamous response to The Sound of Music: “Whom could it offend?  Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how self-indulgent and cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel.  And we may become even more aware of the way we have been used and turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming those sickly, goody-goody songs.”  The songs in Next to Normal aren’t goody-goody, and you aren’t likely to be humming them (Tom Kitt is no Richard Rodgers), but the point is the same: You can’t help but have an emotional response to all the ersatz emotion onstage, and you hate the show all the more for it.

But hey, a reader might be tempted to argue, the show won the Pulitzer Prize!

So did Rent.  Enough said.

Next to Normal plays until January 16, 2011 at the Booth Theatre in New York.  The touring production comes to San Francisco at the Curran Theatre on January 25 until February 21, 2011.  Tony-winner Alice Ripley will reprise her role as Diana. More information can be found at http://www.nexttonormal.com.