Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Feeling Electric Tingling - Next to Normal - Musical Review

Next to Normal - Arena Stage Theatre at Crystal City - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington, D.C.) - *** (out of 5)
Music by Tom Kitt, Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Directed by Michael Greif

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com:

Originally produced at 2ndStage in NYC last year, this remount with some major revisions (including cutting the song "Feeling Electric" which was also the original name for the musical) and some casting switches (J. Robert Spencer from Jersey Boys now steps in for Brian D'Arcy James whose off in Shrekland) is playing for one last week in the Washington D.C. area at the temporary home for the Arena Stage (at Crystal City).

The show is basically about a suburban mother Diana (Alice Ripley, Side Show, The Rocky Horror Show) who has a bi-polar mental disorder and how it affects her family. She eventually attempts suicide, and after regular talk therapy, chooses electroshock therapy (hence the original title of Feeling Electric) which causes her with bouts of amnesia.

It's an interesting premise and there are some deep emotional scars to explore and a mid-story revelation makes quite the jolt in the storyline but somehow the show starts dragging and making some serious ethically questionable points. The music varies from catchy rock to just jarring rock but everything starts sounding the same by the end of the show. I thought the show was excellent during the first act but by the time we got through the second act, the show had overstretched itself.

Alice Ripley (who I know for being "fierce" from the [tossers] since I never actually saw her in Side Show) puts in a superb acting performance but I did not love her singing voice. In fact, I actually though she was the weakest singing voice of the cast.

J. Robert Spencer is great in the role of the overwhelmed and underappreciated husband Dan Goodman. I didn't think Spencer was great in Jersey Boys but I suspected it was because the role was underwritten and so he redeems himself here.

The crushworthy Aaron Tveit (Saved, Wicked) and Jennifer Damiano (Spring Awakening) play the two children Gabriel and Natalie and both have breakout performances and show some truly stellar standout star potential. Both their voices are incredible and both create fully rounded characters. If there's a reason to see this show, it's to see these two young actors before they continue onto further stardom.

Adam Chanler-Berat is Henry, a music geek who becomes Natalie's boyfriend and Chanler-Berat has a beautiful smooth voice and a natural gawkish charm.

Louis Hobson plays the different therapists Diana sees but probably due to the story, there's always a creepiness around these sessions, especially when it gets to the electroshock therapy sessions.

The set and lighting design by Mark Wendland and Kevin Adams (Spring Awakening, Passing Strange) is utilitarian and pulsating, with screens that slide between a modulated pipe "house" structure as different lighting schemes keeps changing the moods and effect of the house. It's visually stunning for such a simplistic backdrop and director Michael Grief (Rent, Grey Gardens) and the musical staging by Sergio Trujillo (Saved, Jersey Boys the upcoming Broadway Guys & Dolls and West Side Story at Stratford) keeps the cast moving about the entire set.

Alas, the story is a fascinating look at what the effects of trauma, mental disorders and the repercussions it reflects onto an "average" family, but ultimately, the music (which is good but not great) and the plot decisions underwhelm the potential of this musical. It's not as exciting as it thinks it is, but it's a refreshing step for the future of musicals but in the end, Next to Normal needed a bigger jolt.


Diederick said...

Seems very much worth the watch - especially with that blond thing in the greyish-blue Tee in it.

Vance said...

That's Aaron Tveit. He's gonna be big I tell ya! (Rumour has it he will be the lead in the new Catch Me If You Can musical)

Diederick said...

He deserves to be (big). Damn what a pretty boy!

Vance said...

He's pretty but his voice is also STELLAR and he has a charming charisma on stage that you can't turn away from.

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