“Next to Normal,” at the Alliance Theatre through November 11, is a 2009 Broadway rock musical about a prototypical American family whose efforts to live a normal, happy life are interrupted by the mother’s tragic struggles with mental illness. It mixes the conventions of the American musical with those of the issue-based, realist drama. It’s social awareness with rousing licks married to difficult subject matter with catchy melodies.
The show, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, has won boatloads of awards and garnered great reviews, and the audience on opening night seemed pleased beyond measure, so I’m perfectly comfortable with understanding myself as an outlier (one man’s pleasure and all that). But it’s a mix that, for me, proved particularly poisonous.
None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with the production. The Alliance, under the superb direction of Scott Schwartz, has given the material its best possible realization. The cast is splendid, and on opening night everyone seemed to remain in almost superhumanly strong voice throughout a long, demanding show.
Jordan Craig and Lyndsay Ricketson, as the younger set of characters, are standouts for the way they particularize the relationship between daughter Natalie and her new boyfriend, Henry. Making a character who sings about her troubles seem like someone you might know is no easy task, but they accomplished it with ease.
For me, the overarching problem lay with the material itself. I didn’t feel that I knew the main characters, the husband and wife, Dan (Bob Gaynor) and Diana (Catherine Porter). There’s a clip-art, generic look and feel to the couple; the show’s creators have simply tacked on some overwhelming problems.
Even the outward signs of mental illness — a birthday cake made for an absent family member, a breakdown during the morning rush, some reminiscence over a music box — seem familiar and off-the-shelf. Kevin Rigdon’s set design is fantastic, but its conception of the home as an enormous dollhouse somehow only exacerbates the generic, unplaceable lack of specificity in the characters.
We never feel that we’re watching bad things happen to real people; we’re always conscious of authorial manipulation. A family has been created and a drop of mental illness has been added to the petri dish to make some drama. It put me in mind of 1980s TV sitcoms that would occasionally present “very special” hour-long episodes centering on similarly difficult social issues: drug use, teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, suicide and so on. “Next to Normal” shares their serious, self-important sense that it’s all somehow bold, daring and good for everyone: creators, audience and victims. (Even with all its self-congratulatory issue-y-ness, “Next to Normal” isn’t above having a bit of fun with Diana’s mental illness: one of her delusions, convenient for a musical, is that her psychotherapist is a rock star.)
The music is tuneful light rock along the lines of “Hair” or “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”: rousing, anthemic adult contemporary with lots of irresistibly catchy hooks. If you’re familiar with “Annie” and its song “Tomorrow,” you’ll know the level of sock-it-to-’em gusto required of the young girl singing the chorus, “You’re only! a daaay! a-WAAAAAAAAAY!”
The singers in “Next to Normal” seem to hit that “way” note a lot. I’m not trying to imply a lack of restraint, skill or talent in the cast — anything but. There’s just something excessive and aggressively cheesy about the score. Diana’s final sung words to her husband — “I’ll take a chance on leaving / It’s that or stay and die / I loved you once and though / You love me still I know / It’s time for me to fly” — wouldn’t look out of place written in elegant Bellerose typeface, decorated with curling vines and flashed between closeups of a suffering Greta Garbo saying a final farewell to her husband in a silent film.
In her pre-curtain speech on opening night, Alliance Artistic Director Susan Booth pointed out that Barry Manilow was in the audience, and indeed there he was: tanned, wispy and dapper, with hair as fine and mottled as a mink coat. And there were moments during the show when I wondered whether even Barry Manilow wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is all just a bit too much.”