Sunday evening we went with a group of friends from out of town to see the play Next to Normal that’s currently at the Booth Theater and is one of the nominations for Best Musical of 2009. The play is by no means your typical musical but, or perhaps because of that, I think it deserves the award. The basic story and song lines revolve around Diana, a bipolar mother who lives with the memory of her son who died as an infant, and the cost of her illness and grief in the lives of her husband, her daughter, and herself. As Diana goes to therapists, flushes the prescribed meds down the toilet, tries to kill herself, and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, Alice Ripley manages to take not just her family but also the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. Aaron Tveit as the ghost son brings a huge amount of energy to a role that I would have thought would come across as unbelievable but, with his alternating sweet and evil character, works well. Some of the lines in the dialogue are too mundane, rattled off like platitudes, and the ending is—at least to me—anything but satisfactory-- but songs like “I Miss the Mountains” and “I Am the One” more than make up for that, capturing the pain being felt, the damage being done, and the issues of freedom and duty the family struggles with.
The staging of the play is amazing. The set is the outline of a house with walls that slide and flip and light up to change settings and moods. And the music –which goes through a range from classical to country western to baby room’s music box—also helps capture the mood swings that the family –and the audience with it—goes through. Despite the attempt to wrap up the issue at the end in an neater package than the issue allows, the play allows the audience to walk away with many of the confused feelings that everyone coming into contact with Diana experience.