The first New York theatre event we saw was NEXT TO NORMAL at The Booth Theatre. It seems odd to call it that as I have been calling it NEXT TO AVERAGE ever since.I was attracted to the show as it had rave reviews from people one would have thought would be in the know as well as it winning the Tony Award for Best Score and the Best Actress award for Alice Ripley.
Well it started off badly with the news that Ripley was off - she obviously didn't read my open letter to NY blog before I left - so we had her understudy Jessica Phillips.
Now whether the cast were on a low light because of this or some other reason, but within 20 minutes I had the slow crawling sensation that this was going to be one of "those" theatrical evenings - when everyone else in the house screamed and yelled and - y'know, like, totally adored it? While I sat there wondering what had caused this chemical reaction in them when what I was watching was fairly routine and as cutting-edge and revolutionary as a revival of BLESS THE BRIDE.Dan and Diana and their children Gabe and Natalie are, at first view, a standard American family. But before long we find out that Diana is slowly succumbing to her bi-polar disorder (how fashionable) and this is sending the family into a tailspin. Dan is confused, Natalie is angry and Gabe seems to be strangely passive about it all. We are told that Something Happened and Diana needs to come to terms with this.
In I'll admit a neat plot twist we find out that the Something that Happened was that Gabe died while still a baby but whose adolescent ghost is acknowledged by his mother. When her husband and daughter confront her with this fact she regresses again and her husband allows her to have Electric Shock treatment at the behest of her new analyst after she attempts suicide.
After the treatment she returns home with large parts of her memory gone and when she finally finds out again what exactly was the Something that Happened she realises no treatment will help her - she needs to help herself. She leaves the family as the daughter who has been, like rebelling because she is hurt and angry, lets love into her life via the school spliffhead and her father allows the ghost of his son to embrace him and acknowledges him with his name, Gabriel.
I sat through all this with the same phrase clanging in my head "American Whining". The mother isn't Happy. The daughter isn't Happy, The father is amiable but evidently not Happy. The son isn't all that Happy for obvious reasons. So what? Life's a bitch - BUILD A BRIDGE AND GET OVER YOUR CHEAP SELVES!!!
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's score is that curious amalgam of noise which makes up a Rock score. While sitting through it's interesting moments but dreadful half-hours (thank you Mr. Beacham) I sadly acknowledged the new shift in musical singing. For a good few years, thanks to voice coach Ian Adam - all singers seemed to be trained to sing the cod rock-opera scores of Lloyd Webber and Schonberg & Boublil - didn't matter what you were singing, just hit those long notes. But now, thanks to RENT and SPRING AWAKENING, the new style is too Sing Out Loud - again, doesn't matter what you are singing - just stress those consonants and always sound Really Pissed Off. As Mme Armfeldt sings in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC "Let's hope this lunacy is just a trend".
The show obviously triggers SOMETHING in the audiences as the one we were sitting in were sniffling at the end then treated the curtain call as the second coming - or the first going. But it left me stone cold.
I presume Alice Ripley gives an impassioned performance but Jessica Phillips seemed to be striking DRAMATIC attitudes rather than actually giving a performance - all the yearning, leaning forward motions, the tortured dragging-her-leg-behind her stance while belting out a song just drew attention to the mannerism.
I found the three male performances actually to be the production's best - J. Robert Spencer was fine as Dan, Diana's long-suffering husband but the show is so skewed in the favour of the wife that he is left to build bricks from the straw the character is given. Kyle Dean Massey as the spectral Gabe was hampered by the dreadful Strike-A-Pose attitudes as well but at least suggested an interior life and Adam Chanler-Berat was engaging as the daughter's sweetly adoring stoner boyfriend although the character was a total cypher.
The role of the daughter was also an utterly dreary cliche - a whining ANGRY teenager who feels unloved and over-looked because of the dead older brother - YAWN. It made me slack-jawed to realise that the authors seemed to find this absurd creature so fascinating. The performance of Jennifer Damiano - who was actually nominated for a Tony award for it - did nothing to help. She sang every song in The Same Emphatic Way as I have previously mentioned - imagine Avril Lavigne with a Broadway dressing room and you are halfway there.Some final thoughts - Owen and I agreed that practically all the songs for the juveniles would probably crop up on any edition of AMERICAN IDOL DOES BROADWAY as they are all so soul-destroyingly "Look At Me" hymns to self-empowerment, and finally what REALLY sticks in my craw about the show is that for all it's "groundbreaking" hype - it's conclusion has the daughter, who has bored us for the whole evening by being Angry About Everything, solves all her problems by putting on a pretty dress and going to a high school dance with her stoner boyfriend.
And it gets worse... the cast assure us at the end - all dressed in matching bright colours - that in the end there is "Light".
Gee thanks... and to think I found that out as well at the end of STARLIGHT EXPRESS.