Photo by Craig Schwartz
Possibly there’s something wrong with me. Last night I left a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical starring a Tony award-winning actress dissatisfied, and I can’t quite pinpoint the cause. “Next to Normal,” a play about bipolar disorder, has all the dramatic trappings an audience might desire: family drama, ballads, sex, lithium and rock and roll power chords. Yet despite adroit performances, mighty voices and a bursting-at-the-seams score, some essential aspect is absent.
The lauded musical takes the audience into a superficially typical American home. Turns out bored housewife Diana (Alice Ripley) struggles not exactly with the tedium of everyday life, but with the deficit of emotion her collection of pills leaves in its wake. With the support of her son Gabe (Curt Hansen) Diana abandons her meds for the manic highs and dizzying lows of her disease.
A no-holds-barred performer, Ripley is every inch the professional as she thrashes through two hours of belted songs and gut-wrenching drama, but there’s no denying the fact that Ripley’s voice needs serious rest.
Also staring in the touring production, at Bank of America Theatre are the affecting Asa Somers as Diana’s long-suffering husband and Emma Hunton as their goal-oriented daughter. Hunton, is a revelation, traversing the show’s rough emotional terrain. Both funny and touching, she truly steals the show.
Maybe I should be grateful that a play not based on a Disney movie or hinging on the songs of Abba has grabbed the theatre world’s attention. Maybe every lyric doesn’t have to be perfect. Still, when bipolar is clumsily aligned with land formations as in the song “I Miss the Mountains,” when clichéd phrases like “cuts you like a knife” are bandied about, when a lyricist has the audacity to write the line “living on a latte and a prayer,” it makes me miss the days of shows like “Evita,” a “Chorus Line” and “Into the Woods.” Seems like writers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey might even agree with me. Why else reference a line from “The Sound of Music?” Yeah, it’s funny to ally Diana’s pills with the more traditional ‘Favorite Things,’ but it also exemplifies a trend I’ve noticed in recent musicals: the tendency to allude to classics. Something about the inclination makes me wonder if current playwrights aren’t conscious of our postmodern moment, when one gestures at authenticity by replicating what came before.
Or maybe I’m just a purist who doesn’t think anyone should ever sing about lattes. Ever.
"Next to Normal" runs through May 8th. Purchase tickets here.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez