Rock is alive and rolling like thunder in Next To Normal. It’s the best musical of the season by a mile (take that Billy Elliot), an emotional powerhouse with a fire in its soul and a wicked wit that burns just as fiercely. Composer Tom Kitt and writer-lyricist Brian Yorkey have broken the shackles of tired Broadway tradition, pushing it in new directions. OK, sometimes push comes to shove. But the effect is never less than mesmerizing.
Like Spring Awakening, Next To Normal shakes up old forms. It’s the ultimate dysfunctional family musical. The opening number, Just Another Day, is deceptively conventional. After quickie sex with her surprised husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer), mom Diana (Alice Ripley) sends her teen children, Gabe (Aaron Tveit) and Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), off to school. But there’s a jangle in the song, even a hint of threat. For good reason. Diana is a bipolar manic-depressive who has kept her family off balance for years. The reasons are revealed in time, and they won’t be given away here. Just know this:
Polish up a Tony for Ripley who is simply magnificent as a woman who can’t find her way home from the maps provided by drugs, hypnosis and electroshock therapy doled out by her doctors, both played without glib condescension by the excellent Louis Hobson. I Miss the Mountains is Diana’s haunting hymn to the high and lows the drugs take away. Ripley doesn’t just occupy the stage — she owns it.
The entire cast, under the vibrant direction of Rent‘s Michael Greif, is stellar. The superb Damiano makes you feel Natalie’s resentment of and reliance on her mother. Her scenes with her stoner boyfriend Henry (the appealing Adam Chandler-Berat) result in her own psychopharmacological anthem, Superboy and the Invisible Girl, that brings out Natalie’s rancor toward of her older brother. As Gabe, Tveit gives a star-is-born performance that promises a stunning future. Singing “I’m Alive,” he’s electrifying, the embodiment of seductive despair. Maybe you’ve seen Tveit and Damiano in small parts on Gossip Girl. See them here and watch them fly.
The score of Next To Normal (now available on the Ghostlight label) is a must for anyone interested in music with the muzzle off. Spencer digs deep into the role of the husband. His quietly devastating take on “I’m the One” uncovers Dan’s grieving heart. It’s a stark contrast to the explosive Light that ends the show on a high that contains no artificial sweetener. You leave this show feeling you’ve discovered something fresh and vital. Next time you think the Broadway musical is dead, head off to Next To Normal. It’ll pin you to your seat.