Review – Next to Normal, Booth Theatre

Saturday 17 April 2010

It’s always the way. You wait years for a show about bipolar disorders and then two come along at once.

Not that Next to Normal has  just come along. It celebrated its first birthday on The Broadway this week and added the Pulitzer Prize for Drama to its mantelpiece to sit alongside its Tony Award for Best Musical.

It was only last week the Whingers endured Polar Bears at the Donmar. But everyone was banging on about how we simply must see N2N and, well, really, you can’t have too much mental illness, can you?So come Thursday evening we trotted along to the Booth Theatre where the staff’s standard of officiousness was much lower than we have come to expect on The Broadway.

N2N is a modern, not-quite-rocky musical exploring the mental illness of wife and mother Diana (Alice Ripley), her attempts at recovery and the effects on her family.

We have to admit that we weren’t at all sure about this when it started – it looked perilously as though this might turn out to be one of those tedious, whiny, angst-ridden American family dramas in which we always have to fight the urge to get on the stage and slap all the characters in turn and tell them to pull themselves together (c.f. Serenading Louie).

But about 15 minutes in N2N delivers a delicious and very satisfying twist to the proceedings.

What follows is an intelligent, carefully written piece which held the Whingers’ attentions utterly (no mean feat).

Alice Ripley’s (left) performance is compelling and the Whingers don’t begrudge her one jot the Tony she earned for this role.

Her journey from mental hell and back is really quite moving and at no stage did either Whinger have the urge to get on stage and slap her. Indeed, they really were quite moved. And she can sing too.

This is not a show-tune show but there is enough variety in the music to keep it interesting (there’s even a Country & Western number) and the lyrics are smart and always rewarding.

But what most impressed the Whingers was the perfect sound balance. We could hear just about every word of every lyric which is NEVER the case in London (although, of course, that turns out to be a blessing more often than not. We’re thinking Wicked).

It’s all staged on an impressive three tier set which does lead to sightline problems if you’re sitting near the front, and forces the performers to perform dangerously close to the edge. But since the characters are close to the edge anyway perhaps this was an intended metaphor. Phil began to feel uneasy for the performers and suffered a strange vertigo transference, his disquiet peculiarly appropriate for the piece.

There is strong support from the small cast, particularly Kyle Dean Massey (right) as her son Gabe who is also very easy on the eye but shorter than you would think in real life. But that’s another story.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

J.Robert Spencer

Jennifer Damiano

Adam Chanler-Beret

Louis Hobson

Tom Kitt

Brian Yorkey

Michael Greif

Sergio Trujillo

Mark Wedland

8 Responses to “Review – Next to Normal, Booth Theatre”

  1. Simone Says:

    Has there been any news that this production will make it to the West End?

    Oh and definitely love the Broadway Bellyachers monicker! 😉

  2. Dickie and Butch Says:

    We’re glad you enjoyed it, and even more glad that you took our recommendation to see it! Any regrets?

    We also published our review today, which is here;

  3. Sam Says:

    Great review, amazing show but you do know it didn’t win the Tony Award for Best Musical? It was beaten by Billy Elliot, although I feel N2N should have won 😛

  4. David Baxter Says:

    It’s great to see you added to the list which is headed by Mark Shenton who have loved tis show (I think Mark has seen it five times now). Even though it is a “mere” musical it offers far more insight than the insipid Polar Bears and surely NtN will find an audience in London. I know Spring Awakening flopped but NtN appeals to a wider ranging audience – come on Sonia Friedman, you must have made so much money from Legally Blonde to take a chance on the best show I have seen for years.

  5. Rebecca Says:

    From your review and the comments, I certainly hope this show makes it to the West End. Though the fact that you (and David Baxter) enjoyed Polar Bears, or felt it had anything to offer, it does leave me wondering whether you actually have good taste or any insight worth taking note of…

  6. Patrick Brightman Says:

    I’m so glad you liked Next to Normal and Ms Ripley, who gives a terrific but tonally challenged performance. I have seen it five times now and don’t think she has ever sung any line the same twice (which, in its own way, makes the show that bit more thrilling). That moment you mention, about 15 minutes in, is one of the great theatrical moments in musical theatre history; its impact barely lessens on second or third viewing.
    The understudy for the father is particularly good, better than he who is covered, but I have to say the girl and her geeky boyfriend are alarmingly good; so is the Doctor in quite a difficult role. Massey is very good as Gabe, but there was something absolutely glorious about Aaron Tveit’s performance which I still find haunting. The duet between he and the father in Act Two was utterly devastating.

    Word was the National was going to do NTN, perhaps in rep with Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet. Here is hoping! Although who on the London stage can play the Ripley role, I am not sure…

  7. Chris Voisey Says:

    Well there you go…

    I saw the show in Feb, booking to see it on the strength of the Best Score Tony award as well as the Best Actress award for Alice Ripley.

    Needless to say Ripley was off the night we went. Now I don’t know if that made the company soft pedal but I found the show to be anything but ground-breaking.

    Generic theatre-rock score – the sort of “I Am Me And I Am Here” song that will no doubt become American Idol cover-fodder when they celebrate Broadway – with the character of the teenage daughter who is of course severly pissed off because No One Understands Her being profoundly slappable.

    And after drearing away all night, all she needs to attend the high-school prom in a pretty dress is for mom to say she has to live her life – with a misfit lad who is of course, sweet and a bit daffy.

    The show ends with the cast in nice bright colours all singing away that at the end there is light. Gee. The last time I heard that in a theatre was in STARLIGHT EXPRESS.

    The Booth usherettes were also long-lost relatives of Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS.

    Thankfully the memory of it was swept away during the week thanks to HAIR, FELA!, A LITTLE MENIER MUSIC and SOUTH PACIFIC – Bartlett Sher’s production was a revelation.

    Just saw POLAR BEARS tonight – damn you got that show right!

    Carry On Whingers – I saw you all at the Menier’s SHIRLEY VALENTINE – I nearly asked for your autographs.

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