In 2009, Next to Normal took the theater world by storm. It won the 2009 Tony for Best Original Score (beating Elton John, Dolly Parton, AND Jeanine Tesori) and became one of only nine musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. On the surface, this isn’t surprising; it used the rock musical (opera?) form to tackle the very real issue of mental illness.
Alice Ripley, star of the original Broadway production won superlative accolades for her portrayal of Diana, a suburban mom struggling with mental illness. My friends who saw this performance have mostly confirmed that it was astonishing. These folks also name Next to Normal as a favorite show. Bristol Riverside Theatre’s aesthetically polished production has left me wondering: is Alice Ripley’s monumental performance necessary for this show to work?
Next to Normal is a beast of a musical. At once a rock concert and a suburban, family psycho-drama. A successful production needs to have a cast that can sing their faces off and present a harrowing tale of mental illness and loss with clarity, nuance, and vulnerability. Unfortunately, BRT’s production misses the mark on both counts.
Unlike Media Theatre’s largely successful 2017 production, director Keith Baker has decided to put the emphasis on the rock concert elements of the show. Set designer Roman Tatarowicz’s high-tech, yet minimal two-story set (a nod to the original Broadway production), gives lighting designer Ryan O’Gara plenty to play with. The lighting really dazzles as it creates moods, levels, and helps tell the story. The boldness of these design choices often feel at odds with the dark and personal subject matter.
The performances offer glimmers of sensitive acting and rock star vocals, but for much of the show, the ensemble feels pushed beyond their range. Danna Viviono’s Diana is played as a musical theater character. Her venomous barbs read more as snappy one-liners. Perhaps it was the result of a grueling rehearsal schedule, but the entire cast felt like they were pushing their voices on Thursday’s opening. There are moments when daughter Natalie (Laura Giknis), brother Gabe (Liam Snead), and father Dan (Danny Vaccaro) feel like a real family. In particular, a final scene between father and son gets at some emotional gravitas. Elsewhere, Gary Lumpkin and Scott Greer make the most of their roles as Natalie’s boyfriend and Daiana’s therapist(s) (respectively).
Productions of Next to Normal are plentiful in the Philadelphia area. In the next year, I can think of at least three upcoming productions. I hope these companies aren’t biting off more than they can chew.
[Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street Bristol, PA] October 29–November 24, 2019;