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April 1st, 2009

Next To Normal

About a year ago, I think, our beloved agent took us to see an off-Broadway play a friend of his was starring in. The play was called Next to Normal, a musical about bipolarity, and the friend was Alice Ripley, an actress and rock singer I didn't know much about. I was dubious, but I will famously see anything, so we went.

And were blown away.

The music was real rock, not musical-rock. Alice Ripley was electrifying as the bipolar heroine trying to negotiate her life through a haze of psychotropic medication and soul-deep pain. The script was sensitive and unsentimental, the set and staging interesting and innovative. There was stuff wrong with the play--a couple of songs that felt like they came out of left field, direction that occasionally bordered on the cartoonish, the psychiatrist played as a villain out of melodrama. But it was fresh, non-formulaic--different.

And now it's on Broadway.

We went to see it last night--again with BA, who had seen it in tryouts in Washington, DC, and wanted us to go again. It was better than ever, he said--the Electroshock Rock number cut, the doctor humanized, the direction pulled in. And he was right.

It's a wonderful show--entertaining, accomplished, often very funny and always compassionate towards its characters. It's also extremely sad. I soaked a handkerchief, and the lady behind us was practically sobbing. But it 's not exploitative, it's not facile, it neither romanticizes madness nor melodramatizes it. And the end leaves the heroine--and the audience--with a reasonable hope of a life that might, with work, someday be, not normal, but next to normal in a positive way.

It's still in previews, so TDF tix are plenty. The theatre's not very big, so you don't miss anything sitting in the balcony (which is where we were). I have no idea what the critics will make of this--it's not feel-good in any normal way, the emotional rhetoric is confusing to an audience used to the scripted arcs of TV and movies, the ending happy only for some variant value of happy. But it's something new happening on a Broadway that's becoming more and more predictable and homogenous, and I really, really want it to do well.


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