Next to Unbearable

27. January, 2011 Theater 1 comment

[Someone said I should add a spoiler warning here because I discuss a plot reveal that happens very, very early in the show (and is a bit surprising at the time)  and sets the terms for the whole next two hours.  So OK, sure, SPOILER WARNING: In this review I do discuss the premise of the piece.]

Jeremy Kushnier, Alice Ripley, and Asa Somers in Next to Normal. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Next to Normal comes to San Francisco with a whole lot of buzz under its belt. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s 2008 rock musical about a family grappling with the mother’s crippling bipolar disorder picked up Tony Awards for score, orchestration and best performance by a leading actress (Alice Ripley) in its 2009 Broadway run and became the first musical since 1996’s Rent (and eighth musical ever) to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The touring production now playing the Curran Theatre in SHN’s Best of Broadway series brings with it Ripley, the show’s Broadway star, as well as a couple of understudies from the Broadway cast.

Ripley’s character, Diana Goodman, is bipolar, depressed, and delusional, and has been for as long as her 16-year-old daughter Natalie has been alive. Her son died as an infant 18 years ago, but Diana has never accepted that he’s dead. She still sees him living with them, now as an obnoxious teenager always giving her attitude, and she lavishes all her attention on him while ignoring her real, living daughter. Natalie studies hard for school—a little too hard, chugging Red Bull—but no one pays any attention to her because everyone’s too busy taking care of her Mom. Dad Dan just goes to work to pay the rent and doctor bills, takes Diana to the doctor (she can’t drive because of all her medication), and sticks by her thick and thin, with no real bandwidth left for anything else. Diana finds him boring and barely puts up with him, submitting to lovemaking as just another chore to do. So, you know: fun!

Ripley makes some fine dramatic choices as Diana, beautifully capturing her apathetic lethargy, manic energy, polite blankness after shock therapy and traumatized twitchiness. She’s such a handful and so much in her own world that you sympathize with her, sure, a bit, but mostly with her family. She also has a fine sense of comic timing, providing some welcome laughs amid the overall crushing depression of the piece.

But at least as heard on opening night, her singing voice has no connection whatsoever to her speaking voice. She does this bizarre thing when she sings where her quavering voice grazes the very bottom of her range and she starts slurring her words and singing in what sounds oddly and distinctly like an Irish accent. (And she’s not Irish—she’s from San Leandro.) It may just be that Ripley’s severely under the weather, or maybe it’s supposed to sound like she’s singing through her sobs or something, but it sounds more like she’s just had a stroke. It’s very distracting and unnerving when she sings, and sometimes hard to understand her when she gets overpowered by the instrumentation.

Kitt’s music is an odd hodgepodge, based in rock but with bits of country, folky fiddling and more traditional Broadway vocals. The composition and orchestration feel very cluttered, with a lot of little snippets of melody competing against each other and few full-fledged songs. Occasionally there’s an engaging melody that you can latch on to, but generally it’s an indistinct sonic miasma that swallows up all the tuneful bits that fall into it. There are also some distractingly placed “yeah yeah yeahs” in Yorkey’s lyrics, adding an oddly peppy touch to songs about trauma and pain.

Director Michael Greif’s production is flashy in every sense of the world, with a high-tech three-level set by Mark Wendland that stands for her house and her mind at the same time, and a whole lot of bright lights (lighting design by Kevin Adams) that fill the back wall of the stage.

One big problem with Yorkey’s story is that the son, whose name we never hear until the very end of the show (although it’s in the program), has no redeeming qualities. There’s one moment when he seems supportive in cheering Mom on while she throws her medication away, but we quickly learn that he’s doing everything possible to sabotage her recovery. Played with pole-dancer grace by Curt Hansen, he stalks around the stage like a panther, snarling that he’s not going anywhere. He lures Diana into a suicide attempt and dissuades her from any course of treatment that might possibly loosen his hold on her. Although supposedly no one else can see him, he moves things around the house when people aren’t looking, starting his sister’s pill-popping habit by leaving Mom’s drugs out for her to find.  So it’s hard to have any mixed feelings about Diana ridding herself of him. Sure, she clings to him because he’s her baby, and you can understand that loyalty in general. But he’s a monster, a satanic parasite who sucks all the life out of her, and through her out of the entire family. Some of the audience might enjoy having him around because he’s a hot dude who sings well, but there’s no question that anything that might drive him away, whether it’s drugs or shock treatment, is worth a try.

That seems like a missed opportunity.  If there were something lovable about him, if there were a sense that Diana had something to lose by getting well, then you could understand her obstinacy, backsliding, and general fed-upness with her course of treatment.  It’s frustrating and invasive and exhausting, sure, and sometimes you want to punch her doctors when they tell her that every horrible side effect under the sun is normal, but you also can’t really take her side whenever she says to hell with it, because succumbing to her illness and her demon child is clearly a terrible, self-destructive idea.

With that in mind, her husband Dan becomes the most sympathetic character in the piece. She says he’s boring, and honestly it’s true. He’s the calming, caretaking influence in the family, and stability isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. It’s not supposed to be. But Asa Somers brings the role a mild, steadfast likeability that makes you feel for him, because he thinks only of her and no one pays him much mind, including himself.  He does sing a lot about how he’s the only one who’s always been there for her, and that might make him seem at times like he’s feeling sorry for himself, but this is a musical, a setting where people are always singing about their innermost feelings in overblown terms, so you really have to give him a free pass on that score.

Emma Hunton’s Natalie makes a mighty quick transformation from studious classical pianist who never touches illicit substances to pill-popping party girl looking for trouble, and she’s always dripping with sarcasm for her otherwise-occupied parents who have never given her the attention she needed and for her would-be boyfriend Henry. Preston Sadlier has a dweeby, Ducky-like charm as Henry, a preppy-dressing stoner who’s been watching her from afar for years and keeps gently wooing her no matter how much she berates and rejects him. That’s how you know he’s meant for her: It’s what the men in her family do. Jeremy Kushnier is quite funny in a double role as a cold, clinical psychopharmacologist and a more dynamic and competent psychotherapist.

You might cheer the ending or it might anger you, depending on the baggage you bring with you, or after two hours and twenty minutes of this you might be too exhausted to care. Even for someone like me who didn’t particularly connect with the story or the characters (and certainly not the music), it’s an emotionally draining piece just because it’s so unrelentingly bleak. Who knew crippling depression was so damn depressing?

Next to Normal
Through February 20
Curran Theatre
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #8 of 2011, attended January 26.

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  1. Brenda

    1 / 27 / 2011 10:41 pm

    Very much agreed with your review. Interesting that you thought the son was not a sympathetic character, I hadn’t thought of that. I felt the Diana character was not sympathetic and father extremely so, which seems inappropriate given that I think this play is Diana’s story. Totally agree with your comment about Ripley’s voice; I could not understand anything she was singing and think that Ripley’s annoying voice made Diana’s character very unsympathetic to me. The son character was so creepy but liked that he portrayed depression as somewhat of a seductive element. Hated the ending, which seemed pat and trite and made the Diana character such a weak character. Also disliked the underlying idea that the medical/psych industry is to be blamed solely for her illness. I hate that they made Diana a victim. Throwing away your drugs is a choice which has consequences. She could have also sought other alternative forms of treatment for her depression 19 years ago. Mental and physical health is a two-way street for the ill person and their doctors, and I think the authors took the easy way out by not giving the Diana character more control over her illness/health. I feel like as an audience member I should have been more sympathetic with the Diana character, and I feel somewhat cheated that I felt more sorry for the Dan character.





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