Without a doubt, this is one of the most emotionally powerful musicals out there, and one that fully requires a strong presence and an intense guttural rawness in its leading lady. Alice Ripley was easily that woman back in 2009 (with a young Aaron Tveit messing with her mind) when Next to Normal first set foot on Broadway. It won the Pulitzer and was nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won three, including a Tony for Ripley’s portrayal of the bipolar wife and mother, Diana, struggling to cope with tragedy, trauma and familial life. So when Broadway Center Stage announced that they were going to revive Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s searing musical Next to Normal with Rachel Bay Jones in the lead, I quickly insured my seats for press night at the Kennedy Center. I could not help myself. I arranged my whole birthday week trip to California to make sure I was in Washington, D.C. for the night. It was a must-see in my mind, as there isn’t another actress I can think of so well-suited for this emotionally and vocally taxing role. It is also hard to believe the thought never crossed my mind, particularly after the third time she ripped my heart out with her scorching and touching turn as the struggling mother in Dear Evan Hansen. She has everything that this role requires: heart, grace, humor, grit, and a voice that can shred your senses with its determined rough edge. I only hope the powers that be can see this glowing star down here in D.C., and send Next to Normal back to Broadway with Jones taking hold with a brilliant force center stage. It’s a performance that can’t be missed, in a show that rips your heart in two.
My companion that night didn’t know what she was in for beyond the bipolar disorder diagnosis of the mother, and I wasn’t about to tell her, or you, anything beyond that. Half the connection is in the surprise, and the other bits live in the sublime intricate lyrics of Brian Yorkey (Broadway’s If/Then) holding his cards tight and playing them with determination and glee. It’s exhilarating. From those first magical bars of music created by Tom Kitt (2ST’s Superhero) that roll out hauntingly from music director Charlie Alterman (Broadway’s Pippin) and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra musicians, the emotional cues are in place to take us on this suburban journey drenched in tragedy, grief, depression and mania. The powerful rock musical digs deep, particularly with the magnificent director Michael Greif (Broadway’s War Paint) at the helm, into the complexities of mental illness and drug abuse, along with numerous other heavy and complicated interactions and scenarios. Lucky for us, they wisely brought Rachel Bay Jones (Broadway’s Pippin, Women on the Verge…) in to lead the way through this hard multi-layered construct of family dynamics troubled by hallucinations and past trauma. She’s the one that brought me so excitedly into my Kennedy Center seat, and I couldn’t be more happy that I made the journey.
As mother and wife Diana, her maternal odd-ball sweetness is playful, girlish and engaging, but it is in her rawness that is so deliciously rougher than gravel that elevates her to the highest of levels. Her skill and unwavering passion transfixes, playing a range that plays havoc with our senses, and pulls us in without question. Costumed with sexy slickness by Jeff Mahshie (Broadway’s She Loves Me), Jones (Public’s First Daughter Suite) spirals up and around the missed mountain with force and ease, captivating us in a way that is genius-ly “flat fuckin’ crazy“. Her Diana teases and plays with her mania, rising and falling hard when the craziness becomes too real and apparent for even her to take in and rationalize. Backed solidly by husband Dan, embodied by the magnificently voiced Brandon Victor Dixon (Broadway’s Hamilton, Shuffle Along), the family struggles on, isolated from one another, trying to ignore, numb, and help as best as they can, when they are able. Dixon’s subtle strength shines achingly well in “He’s Not Here” and “Who’s Crazy“. He’s “holding on” with everything he has, and he “won’t let go” until the beautifully engaging “I Am the One” reprise with Gabe. He’s filled with heartbreaking love and longing for the young woman he married years ago, while his wife deliriously and avoidantly dances the tango with her Doctor, a beautifully voiced but somewhat miscast Michael Park (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting) (he’s not quite the Rockstar I envisioned) to the brilliantly crafted “My Psychopharmacologist and I“. The layering, as this show so brilliantly does, parallels a family’s need for normality, or something next to that normality, with the difficulty of treating and medicating the bipolar disordered. It’s a dangerous business, psychopharmacology, one that many a desperate patient can’t survive the twists and turns of the head.
Standing high above, never wanting to give up on mother Diana, is the handsome and persistent son Gabe, strongly played by Khamary Rose (BET’s “The Bobby Brown Story“). He carries the weight of that part with a golden boy strut, mirrored precisely by the edginess of sixteen year old daughter, Natalie, beautifully voiced by Maia Reficco (NYCC’s Evita). Gabe grins and enables, while Natalie stomps and distracts herself with Mozart. She has a destructive striving for perfection in performance and school that pushes all away and will eventually implode in on itself. Both want their mother’s maddening attention, even when it hurts and disappoints, and in the hands of these two actors, although not having the ability to rise up to their 2009 Broadway equivalents (Tweit and Jennifer Damiano), they balance well with one another, harmonizing and lifting each other up with intention and focus. Reficco is a bit actorly stiff, but sings gorgeously, particularly when she duets with the impossibly good Ben Levi Ross (title role in the first national tour of Dear Evan Hansen) as boyfriend Henry. Their “Perfect for You“, especially during the Act Two reprise, sneaks up quietly and squeezes out a number of surprised tears. His sheepish stoner geek enlivens the physically awkward Reficco, making us cheer for his Hansen-esque love to triumph even as the aftershocks make everyone stumble.
But it is in the fight for Diana’s loving gaze played out between the two men of the family, young Gabe and husband Dan, that shines most devastatingly during the hypnotic “I Am the One.” It slams and pushes all the buttons of love, grief and denial that resonate through the whole piece (just watch that YouTube video from the 2009 Tony Awards with Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, and Tveit). The physical tugging and clinging, although not as well enacted by the two men here in D.C., are electrified by Jones’ growl and snarl. There’s no denying her pain as she insists that her husband has no idea of the emotional torture she is trying to cope with, and the tug-of-war that surrounds her. It forges the dynamic outward, thanks to the incredible sharp hand of Greif’s direction. These productions are thrown together within such a short period of rehearsal time, that it is truly astounding what these talented people can accomplish. As he did with Jones (and Park) in Dear Evan Hansen, he elevates and presents the internal through seduction and conflict that even a Rockstar therapist might not be able to contain. The layering is enriched with designer Paul Tate dePoo III’s (BCS’s Tommy) simplified adaptation of Mark Wendland’s (Broadway’s Heisenberg) epic and haunting scenic design from Broadway, although sometimes hampered by Cory Pattak’s (BCS’s Little Shop of Horrors) shaky lighting and spotty sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Head Over Heels).
Regardless, one can’t take their eyes off of Jones, even for a second. The tremendously brave and dangerous roads she takes as actor and as Diana pushes and pulls at her family stings and tears at your heart. The force of “Didn’t I See This Movie?” that abruptly stalls with a collision with her husband, and the fear that sits inside her as she whispers a plea of “Catch Me I’m Falling” before she dreams of a dance with her son; these are just a few of the moments that will linger and be embedded in your soul after watching this magnificently constructed production. The “Light” shines strongly on Broadway Center Stage with this one, and if you don’t have a ticket already, I’m not sure what you are waiting for. A NYC friend of a friend accidently bought a ticket for Next to Normal on an excitedly hurried whim, not realizing it was playing in D.C.. I hope he threw caution to the wind and made that trip down to the Kennedy Center for the show. This is definitely not one to miss, and I’ll be crossing my fingers that the show, with Jones, Dixon, and Ross in tow, will make that same 3-4 hr trip back up north to Broadway, so I can have “my heart ripped out and stomped on” once again by the brilliance of Rachel Bay Jones and her Next to Normal.
For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com