Who would want to see a Broadway musical about mental illness and grief? I would. In fact, I saw it three times last weekend in Charlotte. Why did I and residents of other states (South Carolina, Texas, even Arizona) make the trip to Charlotte? It’s simple; the tour wasn’t coming anywhere closer to where we lived. I’m referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, and hopefully, it will grace an Atlanta stage very soon.
Next to Normal tells the story of Diana Goodman, a depressed, schizophrenic bi-polar housewife, and her family as they struggle to deal with her illness. It’s a show that’s about pain and fighting, but also about love and redemption. Ben Brantley of the New York Times rightly summed up my feelings for the show: “It is something much more than a feel-good musical: it is a feel-everything musical.”
Yorkey’s lyrics and Kitt’s music for this show are phenomenal. With limited dialogue, the story is almost entirely told by song. The actors are accompanied by an on-stage band consisting of seven musicians, and at times the show feels like rock concert. Due to little transition between most numbers, audience members are thrust from one powerful song to the next. With over 30 original pieces in the show, each audience member will have a tune from the show stuck in his head (in a good way) for days to come.
Currently, the tour is making its last stop in Toronto. Charlotte was the only southern city to be included in the show’s nine-month tour. A non-equity tour is expected to begin in 2012, and the musical is being licensed across the country for regional productions. For example, one took place in Dallas last month and there are planned productions in Cincinnati, Salt Lake City and Boston–but not Atlanta, unless it’s being kept secret.
Even if Next to Normal wasn’t as good of a show as it is, then there is still a prime reason that this tour should have come to Atlanta: it stars Tony Award Winner Alice Ripley as Diana Goodman. Ripley has been with Next to Normal since it premiered off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre in 2008.
Ripley’s low, folky voice fits Diana perfectly. Since the tour started last year, Ripley has become famous for missing shows due to vocal rest. It is clear that her voice is not what it was when she recorded the cast album, but the strain in her voice fits so well with the pain of her character that those who have never heard her might think it was intentional. In Charlotte, she missed three of the Knight Theater’s eight shows. She performed in all three of the performances I saw, but by the last performance on Saturday night, her voice seemed severely strained and even came closing to giving out in the final songs.
Say what you will about Ripley’s singing, but she acts the Hell out of the role. In fact, she embodies the role so well that if this musical was based on a real person, you would think the creative team cast the actual person to star. Watching Ripley is like watching Diana and five actors tell her story. Every breath, blink, smirk, and tear is Diana’s. It’s amazing that she can still muster real tears throughout the show after playing the part for over three years. She may miss more shows than expected, but when she does perform, she gives the show all she has.
While Ripley was amazing, these performances in Charlotte do not quite live up to my first encounter with Next to Normal. Last summer, I saw the show on Broadway shortly after Ripley departed before joining the tour. The show starred Marin Mazzie as Diana, and her real-life husband Jason Danieley as Diana’s husband Dan.
Mazzie’s portrayal of Diana is somewhat different from Ripley’s. Both ladies are remarkable, but the amazing thing about that Broadway production was the chemistry between Mazzie and Danieley. Their real-life bond put a charge into the performance unlike any leading couple I had ever seen. Their run in Next to Normal was much too short, as the show closed on Broadway six months after they joined. Hint to Atlanta theatre artistic directors: convince Mazzie and Danieley that they want to spend a few months in Atlanta.
The original staging with a three-tiered set could prove difficult for smaller theatres in Atlanta, but it is imaginable to see this show performed with just a second tier or none at all. Since the major draw to this show is its music, limited staging would be fine. The show is so personal and intimate, that smaller theatres actually might be ideal. That way all audience members would be able to clearly see the actors’ expressions as the show takes them on its emotional journey.
Because of the way it was written, it would be quite hard to not make Next to Normal a meaningful and moving show. However, the talent we have in Atlanta could easily make a production on par with the Broadway production. Maybe Atlanta will get the 2012 non-equity tour, but I’d much rather see it produced in Atlanta. I look forward to the first Atlanta theatre that tackles this beautiful piece of theatre that will prove to be the most thrilling theatre experience that many audience members have ever had.