Monday, June 01, 2009

Next to Normal Revisited

Next to Normal opened on Broadway on April 15 to mostly positive reviews. The main theme in the reviews was that the problems from the off-Broadway production at Second Stage had been addressed, so I decided to give the show another chance. While it is true that the show has improved, it still suffers from a number of problems.

Most of the worst scenes were cut from the show, the electric shock therapy number, the Costco meltdown, and it definitely feels as if the writers finally decided to believe in the material rather than undercut it with misplaced humor. However, the show still relies to heavily on unnecessary gimmicks. *Warning: Spoilers about key plot twists to follow.* A key element in the show is that Diana refuses to acknowledge the death of Gabe, who died as a baby. For much of the first act, though he only interacts with her, it is not explicitly stated that he is dead. When it is finally revealed, I heard a few gasps in the audience. I see no reason why the audience can't be aware that Gabe is dead early on in the show. An even bigger problem is that once Diana leaves Dan, her husband, he starts to see Gabe as well. We see him struggling with Gabe as Gabe tries to get his father to see him. Are we to believe that mental illness is contagious? There is no hint at mental illness in Dan prior to this. It is brought up in the show that Diana's symptoms (she suffers from bipolar disorder and anxiety) could have been brought about by trauma, which I think is believable if she was already predisposed to these conditions, but that didn't seem to be the case with Dan.
*End Spoiler*

The score can be enjoyable in the way that certain pop songs are fun to listen to. "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," for example, is great for rocking out to on the subway, but as a whole the score does not serve the story well, mostly because of the lyrics, which are mostly expository.

J. Robert Spencer as Dan is a great addition to the cast and is more deserving of a Tony than the overrated Alice Ripley. She is very convincing in her role, but her voice is in bad shape, especially when compared to Jennifer Damiano, who plays her daughter, Natalie. Aaron Tveit has a fine voice, but talk that he was robbed of a Tony nomination is unfounded. He doesn't do that much besides sing and dance around the stage (some of the "musical staging" still makes me cringe). Gabe is not a fully developed character as he only exists as the perfect son to Diana and a torment to Dan.

It may seem like I'm out to get this musical, but that's not the case. If this show strikes a chord with people, great. I just hope that the critics and fans embracing the show so passionately, really believe it is that strong and are not just ignoring flaws because they want an original and adult musical to succeed.


Angelo said...

"Are we to believe that mental illness is contagious?"

Sadly, you've missed the entire point about Dan, and perhaps the entire show. It's not that mental illness is contagious.

Everyone thinks he's the strong one, the solid one, and the "rock" reality, he feels the loss of Gabe as much as Diana does....especially since he was the one "who watched (Gabe) die". His problem is that he has to suppress his feelings, in his misguided attempt to help Diana.

The tragedy is that no one knows this about Dan...he bears his sorrow all by himself, instead of wearing it on his sleeve..

Linda said...

While I agree with you about Dan having to be the strong one until Diana leaves, why would his grief manifest itself in the same way? That is the part I have trouble with. Dan even says something to the effect of, "Why didn't you go with her?" This makes it seems like she's "cured" and is able to leave her illusions with Dan.

Angelo said...

I believe (I didn't write the show) that his grief manifests itself in the same way because it has the same source....the loss of his son.

Why would it be so hard to get the fact that the father feels just as much grief as the mother? The loss of a child is the greatest loss one can consequently, it would be expected that it would have a traumatic impact on both of them.

The implication is not that this has just happened to Dan, but rather he knows that the ghost of his son has been there ALL ALONG, and he hasn't acknowledged it (him) yet.

The line "Why can't you leave me alone?' tells me that this is something that has also been happening to Dan, we just haven't seen it yet....we were all concentrating on Diana.

An interesting sidelight, in the original incarnation "Felling Electric", the finale of the show revealed that the FATHER was the one going through the mental problems...the doctors always referred to the patient as "D. Goodman", not "Diana". The entire thing was seen from the point of view of the mother, but it was happening in the mind of the father. (A Wiki synopsis has apparently disappeared....)

gotmywings said...

you shouldn't be writing about musical theater. putting such totally ignorant negative energy into the universe is a foolish irresponsible thing to do.

carli said...

GotMyWings, I wasn't aware that all Broadway reviews were supposed to be lollipops and daffodils and puppy dogs. Linda disliked the musical and gave some pretty valid reasons why it didn't work for her. You, however, offer no reasoning for your attack. Disagree with her if you'd like, but keep in mind that she is not a professional theater critic and is merely expressing her opinion. That makes her neither ignorant nor a courier of "negative energy."

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Thanks for returning to the show, Linda, so I didn't have to!

Linda said...

Angelo- Thanks for stating your points so articulately. I didn't realize that in Feeling Electric, Dan was the one who had mental problems. I always felt that the scene where Gabe confronts him is leading up to that, so maybe that's leftover from the earlier version. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Dan doesn't feel as much grief as Diana, but that scene still doesn't work for me.

gotmywings- Thanks for putting such positive energy into the universe.

carli- Thanks.

Rob- Ha. Yeah, I don't think you'd like it.

lismarie said...

I would extend your critique of the treatment of mental illness in this show. I'm a bit concerned that--once again--the storyline ends too close to normal. In that, while this woman is consistently depicted as the advertised "bipolar mother," by the end we are are asked to suspend belief in that diagnosis. Maybe it is not her brain but her soul that needs to heal? Maybe her grief was not pathological and she did not need meds, doctors, or the overprotective spouse? Am now also expected to just go cry a little and heal thyself? Not a great message, really. I'd rather have the character continue to struggle--not with normal grief of losing a child--but with the next to normal grief of living everyday in a struggle with the bipolar illness and its "treatments." That would have been, for me, both more real and perhaps even more heroic (and optimistic?).