[SPOILER ALERT: In order to fully express my views on Next to Normal, it is necessary that I reveal some key plot points. If you plan on seeing the show, you might want to read this review subsequently]
In my Boston Conservatory course, I continually exhort my students to distinguish between the intent of a show and its execution. To wit: bad shows can have good messages, and vice versa. I encourage them to see beyond the solid intentions of a musical like Side Show and focus on how well the show executes that message. (In the case of Side Show, not very well.)
So I'm going to try to do the same myself in reviewing the new Off-Broadway musical Next to Normal, now running at the Second Stage Theater until March 16th, and treat the show and its message as separately as I can in this review. In short, I found the show's intentions admirable, its execution periodically inspired, and its message reprehensible.
THE SHOW: Next to Normal is essentially about how one family copes with the mother's bipolar disorder, known popularly as manic depression. Now, I'm all for musicals with off-beat subject matter, but for me N2N fell seriously short of doing this worthy topic justice. I knew I was going to have a problem with this show from the opening number, which was riddled with clichés. I tried to keep an open mind, but the trite phrasing just kept coming. Among the many hackneyed lyrics in this show were the following:
- "catch me I'm falling"
- "let there be light"
- "tender loving care"
- "cuts like a knife" (There oughta be a law against this torpid phrase.)
On a more substantive level, Next To Normal has a maddeningly inconstant tone. Librettist/lyricist Brian Yorkey tries to enliven the show's dark subject matter with forced, obvious attempts at humor, for instance in the number early on in the show that represents one of the main female character's manic episodes. (The Playbill doesn't list the names of the individual numbers. God, I hate that.) It was obvious from the staging that the creators meant this number to be funny, but there wasn't very much that was actually humorous about it. It could have been funny, but it wasn't.
There was some genuine wit in evidence in N2N, but it got lost amid pedestrian writing and some rather overwrought performances. That said, there were moments of absolutely sublime, heartrending drama, particularly in act 2. So, in at least one sense, Next to Normal reminded me of The Life or [shudder] Lestat, both of which also failed to strike the proper balance between pathos and comedy. (There's also a plot twist that seems borrowed from Edward Albee, whose most recent play, Peter and Jerry, was the previous tenant at this theater.)
At its core, N2N has the seeds of a very good musical, but somehow that promise gets lost in the actual execution of the show. With the exception of the central couple, played by the wonderful Alice Ripley and Brian d'Arcy James, most of the actors in this show seem to think they're in a much bigger theater and need to play their emotions to the second balcony of the Palace.
Librettist Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt have attempted to craft some ambitious, extended musical sequences, and sometimes their efforts are quite stirring. But whatever lofty intentions the pair may have had haven't really translated to the stage, which is partly Yorkey's and Kitt's fault, but also a function of Michael Greif's overly broad direction. N2N traffics not in the realm of subtlety or ambiguity. One of the admirable things about the other show I saw that day, Passing Strange, is that for the most part it doesn't settle for pat explanations and resolutions. (Until the very end. See my review here.)
At the start of act 2, Next to Normal begins to reflect what the show could have been. Here, the writing becomes complex, emotionally intuitive, and heartbreaking.
The show develops a much more consistent tone, with fewer ham-handed attempts at humor. The number "How Could I
Ever Forget?" (I'm guessing at the title here, again because the program did not list song titles. Grrrr...) was absolutely stirring, enhanced by the restrained and
nuanced performances of Alice Ripley and Brian d'Arcy James. Ripley was particularly haunting during this part of the show. Unfortunately, after this brief period of inspiration, the show returns to the bad habits of
oversimplification evident in act one. That's the tragedy of N2N: too much
clumsy development masks what is in fact an extremely moving story.
THE MESSAGE: It's at this point that I feel I must get up on my soapbox. Again, I've tried to separate my thoughts about the show itself from the fact that the message it seems to be espousing is, I feel, thoroughly irresponsible. But ultimately, whatever dramatic weight the show might have carried for me was robbed of its meaning by a recklessly misguided message. I've never left a musical so angry.
In the course of the show, the mother character, Diana, played by Alice Ripley, struggles with bipolar disorder, and undergoes a variety of treatments for it, including psychopharmacological drugs, talk therapy, and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). In act 1, we see Diana dealing with the negative effects of the drugs, deciding to stop taking them, and ultimately attempting suicide as a result. Fair enough: Yorkey shows the downside of this misguided decision.
But after the suicide attempt, the doctor suggests that Diana and her husband consider ECT. There's a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about ECT, and unfortunately N2N seems to buy into that misinformation. Admittedly, Yorkey does have the psychiatrist character explain that ECT is not the horror show that many people paint it to be. But then, Yorkey, Kitt, and Greif proceed to portray ECT as a complete horror show in the act one finale, a monument to bad taste that reminded me of something out of the recent Off-Broadway disaster Frankenstein, a musical that was horrific for all the wrong reasons. After undergoing ECT, the Diana character suffers from complete amnesia. ECT patients certainly undergo memory loss, but total amnesia, as Yorkey explains, is extremely rare.
OK, so far, everything seems pretty balanced on Yorkey's part, right? But then, at the end of the show, Diana confronts her psychiatrist and says she doesn't want to take drugs, undergo ECT, or do any talk therapy any more. Which is bad enough, but then the show launches into a "You're Gonna Make It After All" kind of vibe that seems to be sanctioning the fact that Diana has given psychiatry the middle finger. Effectively, Yorkey and company are saying that Diana is better off without the "interfering" hand of science and medicine.
Throughout the course of the show, Yorkey consistently emphasizes the downside of the treatment of bipolar disorder, noting the muting effects of the drugs, the extreme side effects of ECT, reinforcing outdated and deleterious stereotypes about mental illness and its treatment. But manic depression is a disease, not an alternate lifestyle. Was this show financed by Tom Cruise or the folks at his crackpot religion? Yorkey's apparent stance amounts to nothing more than warmed-over pop-psych proselytizing, along the lines of '70s iconoclast Thomas Szasz, who notoriously romanticized mental illness, calling it essentially an individual difference to embrace and cultivate rather than a devastating condition to be addressed and mitigated. Szasz's stance has since been thoroughly discredited.
Would Yorkey counsel diabetics to stop taking insulin because of the inconvenience? Would he suggest that heart patients forgo their nitroglycerin because it's not organic? Or propose that cancer patients stop chemotherapy because of quality-of-life issues?
Why can't I simply review the show on its own terms, ignore the message I so heartily disagree with and simply focus on the show itself? I'm sorry, but I'm not the kind of person who can watch "The Birth of a Nation," admire the cinema craft and ignore the fact that it praises the Ku Klux Klan. Some messages are so reprehensible that it's no longer about the medium but the message itself.
I don't believe in censorship or boycotts. Yorkey has every right to his opinion, and to use the medium of musical theater to express it. But I also have the right to denounce his message as uninformed and dangerous. Because the premise of this show is ignorant, in the purest sense of the word: lacking the correct information. Mental illness is a biological reality. It's not something Yorkey can dismiss as a fictive construct. That does a woeful disservice to the millions of people who suffer these ailments.
So is Next to Normal any good? Not really, although it has bouts of brilliance. But even if it were a masterpiece, I'd still feel honor-bound to speak out against its message.
UPDATE: A note to any visitors from Wikipedia. Please note that this is my review of the Off-Broadway version of Next to Normal. The show underwent considerable changes prior to its Broadway bow. Click here to read my review of the Broadway version. In short: It's a much-improved show with a far more subtle but still perceptible bias. IMHO.